Putzy’s Perfumes by Beth McCabe
Ellis dropped her joint under the park bench and fumbled for her buzzing phone. “Hello?”
“Hi,” said a perky voice. “My name is Tiffani, with an ‘i.’ I’m in Human Resources at Chiron Technologies.”
Ellis tried to focus.
“I have your resume,” Tiffani-with-an-i continued. “We just lost two customer service people, so we’re moving quickly. Can you come in Thursday at eleven?”
Ellis wasn’t even sure she wanted a job as a Customer Service Rep. But her sister, Nora, had gotten bitchy about Ellis sleeping on her couch. She needed a place of her own. And for that, she needed a steady paycheck.
“Thursday is good,” Ellis said, poking around under the bench. She found her roach and tried to light it with one hand.
“Fantastic,” Tiffani chirped. “See you then. Bye-bye.”
Ellis vaguely recalled something about “transactions in the cloud” from Chiron’s employment ad. She had no idea what that was; her background was strictly gig-related. She’d had a burst of creativity when she put together a resume. Dog walking became “Pet Resource Entrepreneur.” Putting together Ikea furniture: “Apartment Design Consultant.” Under “Education” she used her sister’s degree in economics. Then she added three years in Customer Service at an imaginary company in Montana.
Apparently it had worked.
Sucking the last bit of smoke from her joint, she daydreamed about her future apartment. A cozy little studio in an old building, decorated with crafty stuff. Furniture abandoned by techies who’d fled back to California. It wouldn’t be anything like Nora’s sterile, ultra-modern high-rise.
And it would be all hers.
On Thursday, Ellis realized that Icelandic death metal t-shirts and knee-less jeans were not appropriate interview attire. She plucked an off-white lawyer suit from her sister’s closet and pulled it on. She had to leave the skirt zipper half-open; Nora, the family success story, was also a workout fanatic.
She picked out a random pair of Nora’s four-inch heels and struggled into them, wobbling when she stood up. She could do this, she thought. No problem.
Finally she tried to comb through her rat’s nest of dark curls. Nora’s pricey hairspray, instead of helping, solidified the whole thing into an unfortunate lump. But when she consulted the watch she’d taken off her sister’s bureau, it was clear that she had only enough time left to grab a much-needed cup of coffee.
She hopped out of her Lyft at a Starbucks a few blocks from Chiron Technologies. As she left the counter with her iced caramel cappuccino, a tiny foot popped out of a high-tech stroller in her path. She lurched and her cup went flying into the air. In slo-mo, she watched her entire cup of coffee upend and splash her sister’s off-white suit.
“Shit,” she cried, as Yoga Mommy hustled her demon spawn out the door. “That’s just perfect.” She sucked down the sip that was left, flung the cup in a bin, and hobbled out toward Chiron Technologies, blotting her suit with a wet napkin.
As she passed Bartell Drugs, Ellis noticed a grungy little shop that she couldn’t remember seeing before. In the filmy window, chipped gold lettering read:
One spray will brightin up yor day!
A tiny dog with mangy yellow fur squatted in the doorway. He yipped loudly, and a beautiful woman of indeterminate age darted out of the shop, wielding a large atomizer. “Hello, lady. Today only, free sample.” The woman wore a pink Seahawks sweatshirt and lizard print tights. A pirate hat with a huge purple feather perched on her rich walnut-colored hair.
She advanced on Ellis, clasping the rubber bulb of the atomizer.
“No, no,” Ellis said, holding up her hands. “I’ll be late to my interview.”
“Is important, this interview?”
“This will help.” And she sprayed Ellis from head to toe.
A tantalizing woodsy fragrance floated up to Ellis’ nostrils. Light-headed, she flashed on a delightful vision of the dense fir and cedar forest where she’d camped with her first love. But there was something more, too. An undertone of… cinnamon and warm pie crust.
Her Grammy’s gooseberry pie.
A rush of calm and well-being infused her body. Rays of sunshine split the gun-metal sky, revealing her reflection in the spotless window of the drug store. Her sister’s suit molded to her as if tailored. The coffee stain had faded. Her hair, a glossy cloud, floated on her shoulders. She held out her leg, marveling; even Nora’s stilettos cupped her feet gently.
How could this be?
For no apparent reason, the little dog began to snap and growl at her, his face a parody of canine fury. “Hey!” Ellis said. “What have I ever done to you, you little mutt?”
The woman put her atomizer on the pavement. She picked up the dog and nestled her nose into its scruffy fur. “This is my darling Putzy,” she crooned.
As the sun ducked back behind the clouds, Ellis decided not to question her good fortune. She hurried away from the peculiar woman with the obnoxious dog.
As she collected a visitor’s badge in the lobby of the Chiron building, an impatient voice said, “Ellis? I’m here to take you up to HR. You’re late.”
She turned to see a meticulously inked guy, arms crossed, foot tapping. In the next second he sucked in a deep breath; his foot stilled and his eyes glassed over. “I’m sorry. That was rude,” he stammered. They got into the elevator. A few floors up, he dropped her at a half-open door, staring after her with a hungry expression.
Well. She was looking good.
Inside the room, a blocky young woman clacked on her keyboard with purple nails.
“Tiffani?” Ellis asked.
“Yes. Sit down, please. I’ll be with you shortly.” She continued typing for a second or two. Then she poked her head up like a turtle on a log. She sprang out of her chair, rushed around the desk, and clasped Ellis’ hand. “Thank you so much for coming in on short notice.” A sweet smile lit her pudgy face. “That’s a fabulous scent. It reminds me of playing in my mother’s closet when I was little. She had these lavender sachet thingies… but you don’t want to hear about that.” Tiffani shook her head as if to clear it. “Can I get you a cappuccino? Perrier?”
“Cappuccino would be good.” Maybe it would make up for the one that brat spilled all over her.
“Here, take mine,” Tiffani urged. “I haven’t touched it.” She put a steaming cup in front of Ellis and sat down at her computer.
“Your background is impressive, Ellis,” Tiffani said. “You’re far too valuable to sit in the bullpen all day and answer emails from a script. I’m thinking Customer Service Lead.”
Maybe, Ellis thought, she had overdone that resume a bit. “But I anticipate a learning curve. I’m not entirely familiar with the, uh, cloud transaction space.”
Tiffani’s laugh tinkled like icicles breaking off a roof. “You’ll be fine. The most important thing here at Chiron is finding people who fit our culture. Nestor is going to love you.”
Tiffani named an annual salary that was more than Ellis had earned in the past five years. “That’s acceptable,” Ellis managed. Things were going too fast. No background check? No references to fake?
“You can start today. I’ll send the paperwork over,” Tiffani said happily. “Let’s get you settled.”
As they walked through the hallway and the large open bullpen, everyone checked her out. Male, female. Old, young. They ended up at a little office, Tiffani still yakking, underscoring each point with a finger like an eager child.
“…catered lunch every Thursday. Today it’s Peruvian. Group meditation daily at ten. Snacks, espresso, and tea in the game room.”
Reverent pause. “On alternate Fridays, Nestor comes in to meet with the Innovation Circle. That’s above my pay grade. But everyone is so energized when he’s around.” Ellis had no idea what Tiffani was talking about. She needed to get a handle on this job.
“So what am I supposed to do?” she asked.
“When one of your reps gets an issue their script doesn’t cover, they’ll elevate it to you.”
“And I’ll get that answer by…” Ellis prompted.
Tiffani blinked rapidly. “Don’t worry about it. For now, just forward all your emails to another lead. I’ll send you a directory. I’m sure you’ll come right up to speed.” She gave Ellis another fuzzy smile. “I just know you’re going to love it here.” She sniffed again. “What is that perfume you’re wearing?”
“I have no idea. Someone spritzed me on the street.”
When she got back to Nora’s apartment after work, Ellis stuffed the suit under the couch. In the morning, after Nora left, she put it back on. It was tight and uncomfortable, just as it had been the day before. Now it was wrinkled as well.
“As soon as I get a paycheck I’ll buy some clothes,” she promised herself.
She had exhausted her meager funds on the Lyft and the coffee the day before. She didn’t have any credit cards, and Nora had stopped leaving cash around the apartment. With a sigh, she headed for the bus.
Wriggling uncomfortably on the seat, Ellis saw that the coffee stain had reappeared on her suit like a bad magic trick. The day before, everyone who saw her—on the street, at Chiron, everywhere—had smiled and tossed her an admiring look. Today, people glared at her as if she’d flung a pile of burning poop onto the bus floor.
When they pulled up to Bartell Drugs, Ellis shouted, “Wait!” The driver opened the door and she hobbled off in Nora’s ridiculous heels.
She wanted the perfume. She needed the perfume.
But the door of the shop was locked. Ellis rattled it, peering into the cloudy window. On the floor, in front of the counter, she could make out Putzy curled in a ratty little bed. So the woman was probably there. She rattled the door again. “Hello?” she called.
Just as she turned away, the proprietor flung it open. Today she wore a powder blue tuxedo with a tiara askew on her chestnut mane. “No more free samples,” she snapped.
“I’ll pay,” Ellis said, an empty promise. “Please.”
The woman regarded her, tapping her lips with a finger.
“All right. Come in.”
Ellis’ body flooded with endorphins in the close, fragrant air of the shop. She looked around. The counter was bare except for a tiny collar crusted with outlandish fake jewels. Rows of dusty shelves lined the walls, bearing elaborate vessels, each more fantastic than the last.
A half-open bamboo curtain set off a small alcove behind the counter. Through the opening, Ellis saw a pillow and tattered quilt flung on a couch and a small fridge with a hotplate on top of it. Next to the couch she could just see the edge of a clothing rack jammed with fabulous garments—stage costumes, perhaps, or circus outfits.
It was a dump, but it emanated a certain cozy warmth. Ellis felt the urge to curl up and take a nap.
Putzy woke up and bounced toward Ellis, growling and swiping at her like a tiny boxer. “Yip!” he barked.
The woman paused in her puttering. “Putzy doesn’t like you,” she said, smirking. Finally she found the atomizer she was looking for. She aimed it at Ellis and squeezed the rubber bulb.
Ellis inhaled. A warm campfire under an endless starry sky, a boy’s sweet laughter. But this time, instead of an overlay of pie, she smelled sharp yellow mustard. It was the kind you get on a hot dog at a baseball game on a summer day, when you’re there with your dad and your sister, and she is still your best friend.
The ill-fitting suit settled gracefully onto her body. Her feet relaxed into the evil shoes. She knew, if she looked, her hair would look fabulous.
“One more thing,” she said, bucked up by a rush of confidence.
“Spray me extra so it won’t wear off.”
The woman grabbed Ellis’ arm. “Listen, lady,” she hissed. “The perfume can help, but there’s only so much it can do.”
“Ow, whatever,” Ellis said, pulling her arm away. She backed toward the door.
“Wait,” barked the woman. “You pay, remember?” She pointed to a faded price list on the wall behind the counter. “That was Special Deluxe Spritz. Thirty-nine ninety-five.”
“Tomorrow,” Ellis called as she ran out.
Coffee breaks, snacks, and meditation made for a busy workday, and Tiffani had neglected to mention that a massage therapist set up a chair in the lobby on Fridays.
“What’s that scent you’re wearing? Patchouli? Bergamot?” The massage person would not shut up while she kneaded Ellis’s shoulders. “I used an essence that smelled exactly like that when I trained in Vancouver, and I’ve never been able to find it again.”
Back on the job, Ellis forwarded her emails to the other Customer Service Leads just as Tiffani had instructed. She waited for someone to complain, but no one did.
Late that morning Tiffani brought Ellis a pistachio muffin and cappuccino and plopped into the visitor’s chair. Tiff apparently thought they were already BFFs. Ellis would have to put an end to this sort of thing. The muffin was good, though.
“It’s Innovation Circle Friday,” Tiffani said, as excited as a kid on the first day of camp. “Nestor is here.”
“Who is this dude, again?” Ellis asked.
“Nestor Cosmopoulos is our founder and Chief Executive Officer. He’s brilliant. A visionary. He has degrees from Harvard and Stanford.”
Big deal. “And…?” Ellis prompted.
“And, he’s the fifth richest person in Washington State.”
Now Tiff had her attention: Number Five in a state where Numbers One and Two were Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates. Ellis tried to imagine being that rich.
“Also”—Tiffani tinkled her funny little laugh—“he’s really cute.”
“You have a crush on him, huh?”
Tiffani’s pudgy face turned milk-white. “Oh, no. I wouldn’t dream… Nestor dates brain surgeons and opera singers.” She clasped Ellis’ hand. “Promise you won’t say anything.”
Ellis blinked. “Why would I be talking to him?”
“Who knows?” Tiffani beamed. “Hey, I’m going over to Bartell’s. Nestor asked me to get him some aspirin.” She sounded like she’d just been crowned Queen of the Geeks. “Can I get you anything?”
Tiff finally left, sniffing the air happily like a little piglet. At lunchtime some co-workers took Ellis to an expensive vegan restaurant, their treat.
After lunch, Nestor Cosmopoulos shocked Ellis by ambling into her office. “The amazing Ellis,” he said. His gaze was a little unfocused, but he was good-looking for a guy who must be forty-five at least.
She tried to emulate Tiffani’s earnest perkiness. “I’m just glad to be part of the team.”
“Don’t be so modest.” He leaned against her desk. “Tiffani said you were a brilliant new hire, and I absolutely had to come chat with you.” Nestor took a scrap of paper from his pocket and folded it like an accordion, unfolded it, then folded it again. “That’s a delightful scent. It reminds me of dew on the grass by the Charles River. Dawn crew practice. Afterward we would go into Harvard Square for breakfast. Best time of my life.”
He shook his head, chuckling. “Well, Ellis. You’re familiar with our Innovation Circle?”
Ellis knew she should have paid more attention to Tiffani’s yammering. “I’d love for you to describe it in your own words,” she improvised.
“It’s a group of thinkers from all over the company. We shape marketing and social media strategies. We’re having a working session tonight. Penthouse, the Four Seasons. Six o’clock. Join us.” He played with his bit of paper. “I think we’ll make a great team, you and I.” His eyes lingered on her as he left.
Ellis sat back in her chair. Was he flirting with her? It was strange enough to get checked out by every twenty-four-year-old nerd in Seattle. This was a whole new level of weird.
It was the perfume, of course. What else could it be?
She mused about the meeting that night—whether there would really be a bunch of people hanging out in Nestor’s suite. Billionaire or not, he was still a guy. Maybe it would be a “working session” of two. A quick computer search brought up pictures of Nestor’s mansions, yachts, and black-tie parties. If she could get a little piece of that… she felt another surge of optimism. Why not?
“Don’t be crazy,” she told herself. “It’s all in your head. Don’t even go to that hotel.” But she knew she would.
As the afternoon wore on, Ellis’ outfit morphed slowly back to its disheveled state and she began to lose her glow of well-being. In the hall two of the people from lunch walked right by her, scowling.
Clearly, she needed a spritz. But the woman in the perfume shop was scary, and all she had in her pocket was bus fare. Still, Nora often told Ellis she was good at irritating people until they gave her what she wanted. She forwarded a few more emails and went out.
Just as she arrived at the perfume shop she saw Tiffani heading for Bartell Drugs. Tiff glanced her way and Ellis cringed; she wasn’t in a chatty mood. But Tiffani looked right through her.
The door of the shop, thankfully, was unlocked. Everything was the same: the odd-shaped bottles, the aromatic haze, Putzy snoring in his little bed. After a moment the woman came out of the back room dressed in a vintage boy scout uniform.
“Ah,” she exclaimed, crossing her arms over a slew of merit badges. “You come to pay.”
A bead of cold sweat slid down Ellis’ back. She should have borrowed some cash from someone. “I’m sorry. I’ll pay double tomorrow, I promise. I have an important meeting tonight. One more spray, that’s all I need.”
The woman’s lovely face turned stormy. “I’m being sorry I let Putzy talk me into giving you free sample.” More moisture gathered under Ellis’ armpits. Maybe this hadn’t been such a good idea.
All of a sudden Putzy popped up and let loose a growl worthy of a large Doberman, his eyes burning like round red coals. Ellis yelped in surprise and stumbled back.
“Get out!” the woman roared.
As soon as Ellis was out of the door it slammed shut behind her.
“I’m down, but I’m not out,” she told herself. Maybe enough of the scent still lingered to work its magic on Nestor one more time. If things went well, she could buy the damn perfume shop, and then she’d feel fabulous 24/7. She limped into the Four Seasons and got into the elevator. She was getting blisters from running around the city in Nora’s shoes.
The dude who opened the penthouse door wore a t-shirt that said Without Science, There Wouldn’t Be Beer. Behind him, people tapped on laptops and noshed finger food. Ellis saw her intimate tête-à-tête circling the drain.
The guy looked like he was trying to place her. “Nestor,” he called.
Nestor came to the door. “You are…?”
“Ellis. You invited me here just a few hours ago.”
“She’s the newb in Customer Service, Nestor,” someone said from inside. “The one who makes everyone else do her work.”
Nestor shook his head. “I’m sorry. I must’ve made a mistake. But frankly, I don’t remember asking you to come. I’ll ask Tiffani to get you a mentor to help you adjust to your new responsibilities. Have a nice evening, Alice.” He started to close the door.
“Wait!” she cried. “I can explain. Tiffani told me to forward all my emails to other people.”
Nestor opened the door a little wider, but he didn’t move aside. The techies stopped what they were doing and stared. “I doubt that Tiffani would have told you to do that,” he said calmly. “She knows that’s not how we operate.”
“But she did.” Her voice rose. “And it’s only my second day. And you did tell me to come tonight. What is wrong with you people?”
Nestor narrowed his eyes. “I’m getting the impression that you’re not the kind of team player that thrives at Chiron, Alice. I’m sorry, but I’m going to make a difficult decision: you’re just not a good fit for us.”
“It’s Ellis,” she said, nearly weeping.
“I’ll let Tiffani know that your employment has ended.” He closed the door, none too gently.
Ellis sat on the curb across the street from the Four Seasons, cold, hungry, and tired. It had rained while she was inside. Everything was damp and chilled. If she had her own place, she could go home and flop on a couch. Light up a joint—no, even better: open a bottle of wine. The way things were going, that little apartment sounded better than all of Nestor’s yachts and ski chalets. But now it was just as far out of reach.
She glanced up to see a small dog in a fake-jeweled collar prancing in the middle of the wet street. “What are you doing here, you little creep?” Visions of shaking him ’til he rattled played in her head.
Putzy waggled his head toward a stretch Humvee pulling up to the hotel entrance. Ellis looked over. A man in a black t-shirt got out of the driver’s seat and opened the curbside door.
Nestor came out of the hotel and helped someone from the car. Ellis gasped. It was Tiffani-with-an-i on her dream date. She looked fabulous, the waning light burnishing her body into elegant curves. Tiffani smiled up at Nestor and said something that made him laugh.
A strong breeze picked up off the bay and blew toward Ellis, bringing with it a tantalizing combination of smells. Campfire. Cinnamon. Sharp yellow mustard.
“Hey, that’s my perfume, bitch!” Ellis yelled. She stood up.
A mint-green Prius barreled around the corner. The car slid wildly on the slick street, heading straight for Putzy. Ellis agonized for a split second; the car would surely plaster him all over the pavement. She wasn’t sure that was a bad thing.
“Oh, shit.” She dove into the street, grabbed the dog, and hustled back to the curb.
“Asshole!” she shouted at the driver. Putzy winked—or so it seemed—and licked her hand. She dropped him on the sidewalk. “I’ve had more than enough of you, too.”
Outside the hotel, lights began to blink on, cutting the twilight gloom. Nestor and Tiffani were no longer in sight; the man in the black t-shirt stood in the entrance, arms crossed. Ellis’ mind spun in circles. Maybe if she went to the perfume store and explained how she had saved Putzy from death-by-Prius, the woman would let her in. Maybe she would give her a whole bottle of the perfume, and Ellis could try again. She would ask for the other job, the one with the script. It was lonely in that office all by herself anyway.
She threw Nora’s shoes into the gutter, snatched Putzy back up off the pavement, and ran barefoot up the street, clutching him so tight he yipped.
A crude cardboard sign hung inside the shop door:
CLOSED 4 GOOD
THENK YOU ALL KIND CUSTOMER
“The perfect end to a crappy, crappy day,” Ellis fumed. “No job. No apartment. And no perfume. But really, no loss to you, Putz. Your owner was a freaking pain in the ass.”
All was silent. Ellis looked down: no little dog. She felt strangely bereft. The least he could do, after she’d saved his miserable life, was hang around for a while. “Where are you, you little twerp?” she called.
Then she noticed that the shop door was cracked open. Just enough to let a small dog through.
Ellis lounges in a doorway, dressed in a t-shirt with a lurid photo of her favorite Icelandic metal group. A tutu, biker boots, and a leather aviator cap with earflaps complete her outfit.
Putzy lolls at her feet. Suddenly he sits upright and waggles his head toward a young person trudging up the street, hunched under the weight of a large item strapped to her back.
Ellis takes a hit off her joint, coughing a bit. “What’s that you’re carrying?” she calls.
The young woman stops in front of the shop. “My cello.” Her voice wavers, on the edge of tears. “I have an audition with the Seattle Symphony in half an hour.”
“You don’t sound happy about it,” Ellis observes.
“I’ve lost my nerve. This is all I’ve ever wanted, but I can’t go through with it. I’ll just embarrass myself.”
“You’re in luck,” Ellis says. “Today only: free sample.” She drops her joint, pulls a large atomizer from behind her back, and sprays the cellist from head to toe.
“Hey, what do you think you’re…” A smile dawns mid-protest. “This is so weird,” the girl says. “That perfume smells like the flowers my teacher gave me after my first recital. He said, ‘One day you will perform on a much bigger stage.’”
She straightens her back, hefting her instrument with ease. Her face is bright, determined. “Thank you,” she says, turning to walk toward the concert hall.
Ellis nudges Putzy with her toe. “Another satisfied customer. First big concert, she’ll be back.” She scans the pavement, picks up her roach, and shoulders open the door. “I’m starving.”
“Yip!” A string of saliva hangs from the corner of Putzy’s mouth. “Yip, yip.”
“Yeah, I think there’re some tacos in the fridge.”
He tilts his head, looking as stern as a tiny dog can. “Yip?”
Ellis rolls her eyes. “No, I won’t forget the guacamole.”
Putzy scampers into the shop.
Beth McCabe lives in the Tacoma, Washington area. McCabe is a graduate of the Barnard College Creative Writing Program, where she placed second in the Elizabeth Janeway Fiction Prize. Her stories and blogging have appeared in Andromeda Spaceways, Luna Station Quarterly, MetaStellar, On the Premises, Liquid Imagination, Halfway Down the Stairs, Brilliant Flash Fiction, and other publications.