She was twelve minutes late. I wish she’d chosen Strange Brews, the mom and pop coffee shop two blocks over. I hated Starbucks. The barista had put in two pumps of their syrup, when I’d asked for half a pump. I sneered at the cooling cappuccino in front of me. God, I’m bitchy when I’m nervous.
I smoothed my A-line skirt under my bottom, retucked my hair behind my ears, and sat up straighter. I’d stayed up half the night running through the portfolio, making sure everything was as perfect as I knew Cindy Mulgren would want it to be. She was known to like things done a specific way, a huge client. My husband and I were ready to pay off our mounting credit card bills and move into a four-bedroom house in West Lake Hills. It was the place to live. Don’t blow it, Susan. I wanted it. Badly.
When she came in, my back was half-turned. I had reached into my purse, which was slung on the back of my seat. Where was my goddamn lipstick? The terrible coffee had smeared it off my lips. I hoped none was on my teeth. I scrubbed at them with a finger.
“Hello, Ms. Paulsen.”
I jumped in my seat, but recovered quickly and stood up. Smiling, I extended my hand and she took it. Mulgren hadn’t come alone. She was leading a massive man on a leash. I had seen these men before, loping along behind their humans. But, none so large. He was hunched over, or he wouldn’t have fit through the shop’s doorway. At least he was wearing a Versace suit and Prada shoes. I could only imagine the cost to clothe him. His feet were easily three times the size of my husband’s. Legs longer than I was tall. I found myself gazing at his crotch, then quickly averted my eyes.
“Hello, very nice to meet you, Ms. Mulgren. Would you like to sit, please? Or are you ordering something?” I gestured toward the counter.
“Oh no, no. I can only be 20 minutes, then my driver is taking us to the airport.” She took a seat and looked expectantly at me, her left eyebrow arching in such a way that told me the clock was ticking. The hulk behind her settled down on the floor. Even sitting, he was still taller than Mulgren. I began my spiel, but kept glancing at his heavy brow, stretched-wide face, and too-big teeth. He breathed rather heavily, too, and a dribble of spittle was beginning to form in the corner of his mouth. I stifled an ew-face, and carried on with my presentation.
“So, my plan is to integrate the existing center with new spaces, here and here, and a plaza here. The schematics really show how much this opens up the layout.”
She nodded, but I couldn’t tell if she liked my plans yet.
It was then that I noticed her silk blouse pocket was moving. I carried on, but kept an eye on it. She didn’t appear fazed.
“Of course, the plans leave possibilities open for-Oh my!”
A small Chanel-suited woman had popped her head out of Mulgren’s pocket. I had thought it was a mouse, her hair and suit were both brown. In fact, I had no idea they made the humans that small. The very smallest and largest were expensive, so Mulgren wasn’t hurting for money, that’s for sure.
The tiny woman squeaked, “I want a tea!” and crossed her arms. I detected a faint British accent, but I couldn’t be sure because the voice was so high. It was rather irritating. And I was already on edge and sweating profusely. What next?
Mulgren poked the little woman in her side, the woman squealing, until she retreated back into the pocket.
“I apologize that I had to bring them. You know how it is sometimes.” She didn’t look sorry, though. Then she stopped and appraised me. “I’m sorry, do you have any? I just assumed.”
“Uh, no, I don’t.” She frowned. “But my sister does. They’re great.” She perked up.
“I meant to tell you, you have a little bit of lipstick right there…” She motioned with her hand over the left side of her mouth. I had forgotten about my lipstick mishap and, embarrassed, wiped my mouth with a napkin, then thanked her.
From her pocket, the woman tittered. Mulgren whispered “Shh!” out of the corner of her mouth while eyeing me. The small woman seemed to be laughing at me. “I’m so sorry,” Mulgren said. “It’s been hard training them to have manners.” She opened the top of her pocket and lowered her face to it. “Now Lois, stop it. We’ve all smeared our lipstick at one point or another.” I looked at my cell phone. I’d gotten through 6 minutes of my 18-minute presentation.
Just then, a tiny hand reached up and smacked Mulgren on the nose. Mulgren flinched, but I’m sure the slap only felt like a stray hair.
Mulgren lowered her voice, “Do you want me to put you in the box when we get home?” The small woman grew silent. Mulgren raised her voice back to normal, “There there. Let me order you a cap full of tea and you’ll feel better.”
The heavy-breathing hulk, who had sat still until then, started sniffing and pawing a woman walking by with a coffee. She was so startled that she screamed and dropped the coffee, which splashed all over my skirt and Mulgren’s Donna Karan shoes.
Mulgren leapt up and hissed, “Trevor, down, down!” while jerking his leash toward her. He struck a cowering-dog pose and resumed his previous position beside her seat, rubbing his neck with huge hands.
“I’m very sorry about that. Hello, barista, help here, please.” Mulgren’s voice carried across the place. She was used to being waited on. I wondered if the hulk waited on her. I openly stared at his crotch again.
She turned my way and whispered, “They’re cranky, and it’s time for naps. They were up all night long making noises at each other. I don’t know why I adopted both at once. Margaret left for Brown, and I was feeling quite lonely. You know, empty nest, and all that…”
“Why have you kept both, then?” I asked. In retrospect, perhaps it wasn’t the best thing to ask.
Her mouth opened and she looked appalled.
“I mean,” I tried to recover, “obviously you love them like they’re your own. So I could see why you would keep them.”
Her face softened, eyes watered. “Yes, I do love them. Just like my own children.” She stared up fondly at the hulk and smiled down into her pocket. “You’ll know, one day.”
“Yeah, I’m not sure. I suppose some women think parenting is more fulfilling, but I chose my career.”What the hell is wrong with me? Mulgren’s lips flattened.
There was an eery silence, filled only with the sounds of the cappuccino machine steaming milk and the click-click of our neighbor’s nails on her notebook. Mulgren was staring at me through slitted eyes, a pained grimace on her face.
“Well, it looks like we need to be going. I don’t want to miss my flight. Florence is so lovely this time of year.Thank you. We’ll let you know our decision.” She gathered up her purse, and the pocketed woman began to cry, “But I want my teeea!” The hulk started moving around in circles, like a dog wanting to go outside.
I nodded, stricken, but she was already striding away. The tiny woman screaming for tea, the hulk bounding ahead.
h. l. nelson is Founding Editor/Executive Director of Cease, Cows mag and a former sidewalk mannequin. (Yes, that happened.) Pub credits: PANK, Hobart, Connotation Press, Red Fez, Bartleby Snopes, blah blah blah. She is working on an anthology, which includes stories by Aimee Bender, Roxane Gay, xTx, and other fierce women writers. h. l.’s MFA is currently kicking her ass. Tell her what you’re wearing: firstname.lastname@example.org.