By Margot Landau
I’m telling you, they don’t send you out on assignment if you’re bad at your job. They keep you right at the level you rise to, but they don’t shoot you forward to flounder and fall. They spend too much money on your uniform, your suit, your travel, to spend it if you aren’t the best one they’ve got for the job.
And there are a hundred ways to be bad at your job. And you can be great at one aspect of it and the lowest catfish at another: a teacher who is frighteningly capable of getting students’ attention, but has nothing to impart; a stock broker who picks all the big winners, but maybe he can’t make anyone believe in him when there’s money on the table; a dairy farmer who is charming with the cows and their udders, but can’t pasteurize the stuff.
You see what I mean? I was good at my job, in the office with the microscopes and magnifying glasses. And I could make predictions, and I was always right, and they believed in me with their money on the table. That’s why they sent me out on assignment, and now they’re calling me back.
Of course you don’t know what I’m talking about. That’s why I’m telling you this. Also because we’ve had these many beers together, and you’ve been a good friend to me, and you introduced me to these fine beers, you and television. And I hold my beer very well, and I think you probably won’t hold yours as well as I do, but that is for the better, I bet.
What I’m telling you is remember Larry in the mailroom. Larry who sorted all the mail from inside and outside of the company and then he made sure it got where it needed to go. Well, that guy got so far behind that he didn’t bother sorting the envelopes any more, and instead he just tossed them into the boxes at random. And then you had that mess where everybody was walking across the building handing strangers their mail, meeting new people, walking down unfamiliar hallways, doleful uncertainty. Remember that?
That’s what happened to me. They sent me here. You know, from up there. From the ship, which is how they send you down. Oh, don’t look at me that way. There are a million planets. I mean, they sent me down to do this job. This big important job. To categorize and classify. And the first person I met was Jan from human resources. I met her at the grocery store. I was feeling the fruit, trying figure out which were the right ones, ones I could eat without making myself very sick, sick like when you come in too fast through the atmosphere at Xactine. I mean sick.
“You know they’re ripe when they give to light pressure,” she told me, and she pressed her finger into a mango. So I asked her to tell me about the apples and she explained that it was the opposite. With apples you want them to be pretty hard. She showed me with tomatoes and strawberries, and pulled the leaf off of a pineapple, and we smelled a grapefruit.
See? I walked around all day searching for the right human to make initial contact, and then, just like that, she was talking to me. But also, I learned something else right then: you can’t see everything about a human just because you can tell what kind of fibers they are wearing (although that is important when you’re doing a quick scan), because I might never have recognized that polyester-and-cotton Jan also knew about fruits and vegetables.
What are you asking me? No, Jan has the brown hair. You are thinking about Wanda, the one in all silk and billowy blouses.
Anyway, Jan asked me what I did for a living. That was my first mistake, a little misunderstanding, a language error. I only made that one once. “You mean as a carbon-based life form?”
She laughed, which I knew all about, so I recognized there was something funny, odd, about what I’d said.
“I mean, Silly, what do you do for money?”
You see how much I learned from Jan on my first day out of the space pod—yes, like a capsule off a space ship. Of course I can show you it. It’s in a pay lot, on Fourteenth Street. It has been there since last February.
So I told her mostly the truth that I had been working for a firm that catalogs species based on variation and similarity. I told her I had just arrived in town and now I needed to find a new position that would allow me to earn money. I said ‘money’ because I wanted her to know we spoke the same language. I told her my firm was compiling a big book and I hoped someday to provide a big help in finishing the book.
She asked me if I meant like a dictionary, and I told her I figured I did mean that. So she told me to come in to the office, and she might be able to find me something in the editing department.
“Just until you go back to your other job, of course,” she told me and she even asked me if I wanted to eat any food with her for dinner maybe, the type of gesture I didn’t begin to understand until mid-March, but I did take her business card, my first business card. I’ve got an extensive collection now, and I write pertinent details on the back of each, like height and weight, fibers and coloring and basic initial scan intelligence ratings. Jan was high on intelligence. But her hair and skin contrast was low, practically the same color, which I consider an Alien quality, matching hair and face. Skeletal smallness is another quality I consider mildly Alien, though in both cases they aren’t Alien qualities, only qualities invoking nostalgia and homesickness.
I’m trying to tell you. Yes, have another beer first. I’m trying to tell you. I fell in love with Jan. That is against all the papers I signed when they sent me. It’s against every code of ethics of being sent. I’m not proud of it.
Yes, Jan, with the brown hair and the low raspy voice, like a rain shower on the third of the blue planets. Yes, Jan that I loved. She helped me find a job, and was correct when she told me I wouldn’t like it for long and I wouldn’t want it forever. “But just to start out,” she told me. “Just in the beginning.”
But she was wrong, because to walk in the same hallways as Jan every day, to punch in the same timecard felt like a blessing. And I was learning every day to be more human. The first week, I didn’t understand about drinking coffee in the morning, but I learned the implications of water-cooler conversation. The second week I was surprised to discover the benefit of cigarette breaks offsets the detriment of lung damage, and Jan helped me pick out my television. When she saw my apartment, she looked around and got a sort of frown on her face, and then she said, “I know what you’re missing here.” Week three was the first time I ran my fingers through human hair, Jan’s hair. Week four. I’m telling you I fell in love. Week five I figured out how to talk about baseball.
Maybe it’s because Jan was my first human contact. My first interaction in my new form. Many sorts of mating are forbidden, I mean contractually, but not in any sort of ethical sense, when you are sent out on a mission. There is no fear of procreation. Our species are so spectacularly different that it would be impossible. Also we are not supposed to alter your natural existence. We are only meant to study; to the best of our ability we leave your habitat unchanged. Like those commercials about no-impact hikers, “leave only footprints, take only pictures.” Do you see what I mean?
But I fell for Jan, tube over tentacles. It’s an expression. Feel my arm then. Feels like skin, right? That’s right. Perfect simulation. We study corpses. We study them and then put them back where we found them. It’s highly complicated, very technical. Beyond my scope. It’s an exercise in mimicking and also in reanimation. My skin tone is perfect, not a dead pallor.
So, anyway, I loved Jan. And Jan was a busy person, with family and friends, and I should tell you, love in the eighth galaxy is very different. Love, the rough translation, is not an emotion. You receive it in the mail, and that is how you know. Love comes like a telegraph. Have you ever been in love my friend? I would love to hear the story while we drink our seventh beer together.
Not Lucinda from Marketing? She’s a powerful creature. She would defy comparison on eight of twelve galaxies.
I’m so sorry. She’s a cruel being after all. Damaging. But as a human, you’re relatively versatile.
She couldn’t have said that. I would never say that to you, not that I know you very well. I will drink to your health, my friend, and assure you that was a beautifully story, and very regrettable that it ended so badly. You are lucky you got out when you did, and perhaps we both learned a valuable lesson. You can’t get involved with anyone from the office. It’s a bad policy no matter where you come from.
Exactly. For me it happened so fast. I got so caught up with Jan I didn’t know what to do.
Yes, that is a very good question to wonder why I felt love as an emotion here though I hadn’t received it in such a way on my planet. My supervisors wondered also. They sent me urgent sonograms. Not like the dolphins—the meaning is different. They warned me: “this is not love. You are experiencing technical problems in the human suit. Do not be confused,” they warned me. I sonogrammed back to them: “signal scrambled, please resend. Please resend.”
Anyway, thinking about Jan, wondering when I would see her, hoping for a glimpse of her down the corridor, longing for a wisp of the peculiar but compelling scent of her, I fell behind in both jobs. I fell behind in my small human editing duties, and I fell behind in my larger task of categorizing your species. I was supposed to meet as many as I could, to gather dimensions and non-intrusive samples, blood, saliva, hair. I was supposed to send the physical evidence in weekly packets (all very complicated technology) and the rest I sent in our intergalactic sort of instant messaging.
On my planet I have a wife, and four pods, nearly hatched already. My wife twice has resent the sonographic message of her love. In my new body, I ought to tell you, it is hard to imagine such a scaled and sinewy creature offering eternal affection. It must be the water on this planet or that I haven’t brought enough mementos of home, but I found I’d forgotten my roots and tendrils. I’d forgotten everything but Jan.
I couldn’t leave home in case she might stop by. I didn’t want to leave my apartment. I hated to leave my bed. On my planet, there is no word for pining. One does not pine. On my planet, love does not come in the form of questions. If you received love on my planet you would never wonder if it would call or not call. A husband or wife is a constant, is unquestioned, like on your planet you take as absolute certain laws, relativity, for example, and thermodynamics.
I watched the television she helped me choose. I took notes about the characters. At first, I pretended to myself it was real, that I didn’t know these were fictions, that I was only taking a small short cut. I sent case studies on General Hospital and I Love Lucy and Baseball Tonight. I described the humans in detail. Brown hair, blue eyes, skirt that just dusts the top of her knees. My notes found their way back to Jan.
Even when I tried, my jottings were half-hearted, “Joe wants to hit more home runs,” “Lance is hung up on Greta.” “Ricky is angry at Lucy. She is very silly.” I lost interest in learning. I couldn’t follow the plots. I sent back gibberish. All because of Jan.
Jan who destroyed me perhaps to date vice president in charge of finance, perhaps only because I am not who she thinks I am. Perhaps sometimes when I sleep I ooze the alien fluids of my planet, and when I use loofa I risk exposing my inherent scales. Maybe it has nothing to do with that vice president and she senses my basic inhumanity.
In charge of finance. The one with the elaborate hair the color of oak and the very broad shoulders. I could have been equipped with very broad shoulders if I had requested it and filled out proper paperwork. I was uninformed.
Yes, I’m talking about Jan. Jan like the typhoons off Seventh Neptune that can rip your lungs out. Yes, I mean Jan who fills out the paperwork for leaves of absence and who freezes your insurance, just because she can do it. Just for spite. That Jan.
And then I get the message. “Demotion: you are sent for. Don’t be late.” Don’t you see. On my planet you lose your job in the same way that love comes, just like a telegraph. But I can’t leave. I need to climb into the space pod and wait in the parking structure on Fourteenth Street. But I cannot. Not while Jan exists, Jan with eyes the color of Plutonian Death Lizards and equally poisonous.
I think you need another beer. At least one before I ask an enormous favor. On my planet, favors come differently than here. You can’t say no to me, not now, when Jan might still change her human mind. It won’t hurt after another beer and you slip right into the spaceship in the parking garage and into my old and willowy form.
Oh don’t run. You must have learned it from movies, how resistance is futile, how Aliens are so much smarter than the human mind can even fathom. You’ll drink another beer and a little cocktail of my own, and then when you wake up my wife will be waving to you from the runway, waving in your landing, six or eight or ten of her arms, all waving you hello and welcome.
Margot Landau studied publishing and American literature as an undergraduate and education in graduate school, and is now living in New York City, working in neither of those fields. She has been published in Ink Pot Literary Journal and has a piece accepted by Word Riot.
Photo "Toe Socks" courtesy of Anonymous, Clinton, New York.
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