October 21, 2022
A Temporary Position
By Mario Moussa
As long as she could remember, Greta wanted to wear a uniform. In her fantasies, it made a statement: I’m doing official business, serious business. She had no interest in swanning around in a silly costume, like a sugar-drunk trick-or-treater. She had standards. She aspired to be professional. Still, the particular profession didn’t matter. It was a uniform—any uniform, just the fact of wearing it—that mattered. Policewoman, nurse, brain surgeon, pilot, and so on—she had an open mind on that score.
One otherwise uneventful evening, after living in her uniform-obsessed imagination for years, ensconced in her dank South Philly apartment three floors up from cracked sidewalks and hipster cafes, as she was mindlessly hopscotching from one website to the next on her dusty laptop, Greta saw an opportunity, a chance to be the person of her dreams. There it was—the ad, perfection in five lines.
Seasonal Park Ranger. Description: This part-time, temporary
position will support the efforts of the Park Rangers Unit. This
position will primarily focus on providing information and
assistance to citizens as well as helping to ensure public safety in
the urban park surrounding the Liberty Bell.
She pictured herself wearing one of those khaki shirts and the deep-green Smokey the Bear hat. It was perfect and she was perfect for the job. For one thing, she oozed information. Every day, she overheard the horse-drawn carriage drivers who gave tours in the historic district a few blocks away. Ben Franklin this, ghost story that. Facts filled her head. The pressure of all that knowledge was frankly enormous and needed release. As for safety, she was fanatical about it. She had avoided anything remotely perilous in the neighborhood. Take the incident last year, when the tenant on the floor below had been attacked by a pit bull in front of their building. A passerby shot the dog right through the eyes. Bam, bam, bam! Her neighbor stood stunned over the dying animal, blood pooling on the sidewalk. The shooter kept walking. But Greta had never gotten mixed up in random trouble like that. She knew how to avoid it, checking the local neighborhood news app every day for stories that suggested danger and adjusting her activities accordingly. If given the chance, she could help others—tourists, history buffs—avoid danger, too. She was a street-smart citizen, a natural for ensuring public safety. Add it all up. This was the season to be a park ranger.
She tapped out an email to the hiring manager, one Mickie Addison, and hit send. Done! What do you think, Mickie? Now, sitting back in her rickety chair, Greta closed her laptop and waited. Minutes passed. She checked her phone. Nothing yet. Above her head, dark whorls of water stains on the ceiling seemed to threaten rain. She smiled at the impending storm.
The next morning, she got up, looked at the thin strip of grime circling her bathtub, looked at her face in the mirror. Spidery wrinkles lined her pale cheeks and forehead. She turned away and then took another look at her face. It was time, past time. She shuffled to the kitchen and opened her laptop.
Evidently, email traffic in Greta’s little part of the world had been light. A few messages were waiting, with news about upcoming events at the main library and pleas from cash-strapped candidates in mid-term elections. But there was nothing, nothing at all, about the life-changing temporary position. She nodded. Of course, these things take time. She knew that. She wasn’t stupid. Give it a day or two.
Later that morning, she checked out customers at the local organic grocery where she worked part-time. A silver-haired woman wearing a thick black overcoat approached her, cradling in her arms an onion and a plastic container of roasted pecans. “Please put said items on the conveyor belt,” Greta said. She thought the word “said” added gravity to her request. The woman leaned toward Greta and dropped everything all at once.
Greta totaled up the bill while the woman stared at the cash register. “Five dollars and forty-five cents,” Greta said. The woman opened a small purse and pulled out a handful of crumbled bills and coins. She moved her lips silently as she counted. Greta looked at the woman, wondering if the ceiling in her apartment resembled a gathering thunderstorm. The woman extended her hand holding a wad of money. When she had closed the cash register drawer, Greta turned to the woman and stood motionless, then checked her phone. Still nothing yet. The woman shuffled to the exit, onion and nuts nestled in the crook of her arm.
Days passed. The clouds on Greta’s ceiling grew slightly darker. Mickie Addison was not responding. The thought that she might not exist—that she was only a made-up name on a website, a ruse to deceive unqualified fools who dreamed of winning the temporary position—jolted Greta like a thunderclap. Pacing on the patchy rug that covered her living room floor, gesturing with her hands as though addressing a large unruly crowd, Greta decided to take the next step.
Greta stood on her tiptoes off to the side of the office door and peeked inside, her head tilted at an awkward angle.
With a head of hair like steel wool, shoulders wide and blocky, Mickie Addison sat behind her desk in an attitude that displayed, at this particular moment, her obvious and outstanding professionalism. Greta could tell that when Mickie moved, she moved like a highly disciplined advancing army. Now, at rest, reviewing architectural drawings of the park where the Liberty Bell was located, she had her forearms laid out straight on the desk, elbows bent and palms down, like a sphinx.
Her cell phone rang. She checked the screen and took the call.
“Yes,” she said, as though answering a question. After a pause, she said, “No.” And then: “I don’t think so. I’m busy.” She hung up.
Greta stepped inside and stood on the other side of Mickie Addison’s desk.
The woman looked up. “Yes,” she said, as though answering the same question that had been posed earlier.
“I’m here to see you about the temporary position,” Greta said. “I’m glad to see you exist.”
“Of course I exist. How could I be sitting if I didn’t exist?”
“Fair point. What about the position?”
“I told my colleague I was busy.”
“Okay,” Greta said. “But I’m here.”
“Which temporary position?”
“Seasonal Park Ranger.”
“When was Ben Franklin born?”
“Sometime after the birth of Jesus and before the death of Karl Marx,” Greta said.
“I think like a scientist. In ranges, not specific points. It’s more scientific.”
“That may be true, but can you be more specific?”
January 17th, 1706.” Greta had heard that information just yesterday, when a carriage driver barked it out at the corner of Walnut and Third Streets.
Looking directly at Greta, almost staring, Mickie Addison said, “Let’s assume for the moment you’re right for job. When can you start?”
“Now,” Greta replied.
“How about tomorrow or the next day?”
“Sure. But what about the uniform?”
“The ones that park rangers wear.”
“If you pass the written test for the position and everything checks out and you get the job, you’ll wear a uniform.”
Grinning, Greta looked up at Mickie Addison’s ceiling. It was off-white, like an overcast early-dawn sky. “Perfect,” Greta said out loud.
Three days later, in bright sunshine, Greta in her new uniform stood outside the glass-walled pavilion that housed the Liberty Bell. A few feet away on the sidewalk a Japanese man and woman were chatting with three children. Everything about the group said tourist: the colorful sneakers, the folded maps, the wide-eyed faces tinged with a vague pallor of exhaustion.
The man stepped over to Greta. “Excuse me,” he said in a flat New Jersey accent, “can you tell me where to find the Liberty Bell?”
Without moving her body, Greta turned her head in the direction of the pavilion. Then she looked at the man. “It’s in that building,” she said, nodding toward it. “You can see the bell through the glass from here.”
“Oh yes, you’re right!” he said. “How embarrassing.”
“It takes a constant struggle to see what’s right in front of your nose,” said Greta.
“He’s the one.”
The man thanked Greta and walked back to the woman and children. The five of them huddled together while the man addressed the others, glancing over at Greta and with a finger drawing invisible lines on one of his palms as though he were plotting a heist.
Standing there, ready for anything, Greta felt the satisfaction of a job well done, and she could only get better. Last night, online, she read up on local history. George Washington was born on February 22nd in 1706. Ghost hunters travel to Philadelphia from around the world. Sometimes they see Ben Franklin walking with George Washington along the streets of Society Hill. She knew everything she needed to know, including the exact location of landmarks like the Liberty Bell. She ensured public safety by standing just as she was right now, firmly in place, calm, knowledgeable, wearing her perfect flat-brimmed hat, a perfect pine-tree green, a khaki shirt with a nametag, greenish khaki pants, perfectly creased, and sturdy black government-issued shoes. Nothing could go wrong. No question was unanswerable.
Greta smiled, the wrinkles in her cheeks spreading from her mouth like ripples in a pond.
At that moment, out of the corner of her eye, Greta saw Mickie Addison moving toward her with a heavy tread. When the two of them were face to face, just inches away from each other, Mickie Addison said, “How’s your first day on the job?”
“Everything’s under control.”
“Just one question.”
“Yes,” said Mickie Addison, as though the same question kept coming up again and again.
“Is there a chance that this temporary position could become permanent?”
“Anything is possible.”
“I believe that,” said Greta.
Mickie Addison advanced toward the Liberty Bell pavilion, and Greta straightened her hat. The area was secure. High above, the sun blazed. Greta felt comfortably warm and perfect in her uniform.
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