★ ★ ★ ★
“So, you’ve been coming here for a while now. We need to talk about your future.”
That was the first time she had ever said anything like that to him. Ben was dumbfounded. He had thought that it was understood not to talk about the future because for him there was none. Or if there was, it would just be like the present; he had no intention of changing anything.
His face was still full of pimples although he was in his early 20s already. He had started to doubt that they would ever go away. But that wasn’t the only nuisance his body plagued him with: As soon as he felt mildly uncomfortable the pores of his armpits opened to let out a stream of sweat.
He could feel the eyes of Ms. Barfuß, his case worker, upon him, a lady in her 40s with dyed blonde hair piled on top of her head and a large bosom that always drew his attention, although he tried not to stare.
What was this supposed to mean?
During his first appointment with Ms. Barfuß at the Jobcenter, he had sat in front of her, arms crossed, lips tightened, ready to let the procedure wash over him, ready to resist whatever she might suggest. He had gone through several case workers before her already, all of whom had given up on him quickly. She was very businesslike, but not unfriendly. Just like all the others she asked him about his past, the schools he went to, if he had some kind of job training, any other jobs, etc. She had slightly raised an eyebrow when he had answered most of her questions with no, but didn’t press him.
“We will figure something out for you,” she said, and gave him an appointment for the following week, which he caught himself looking forward to. He appreciated that she hadn’t tried to send him somewhere right away. Her optimism would soon be quashed though.
He didn’t remember when it began, but it wasn’t long after he had admitted to her that he had no intention of getting a job. Why? Because he loathed the idea of having to go to work.
Not that he hadn’t tried – he had once worked at a florist’s shop, but that didn’t last very long. The boss was constantly chasing him around complaining he wasn’t working fast enough, and that they needed to make money. Money was really all that was ever on this person’s mind, and after five days he had had enough and left. Or was it the boss who made him leave? He didn’t care; at least it was over. Since then he had vowed to himself never to sacrifice his freedom again, to never again let anyone lord over him, telling him what to do. The mere thought of having to go to work gave him anxiety and made him sweat profusely.
To his surprise Ms. Barfuß had agreed to keep him, to not send him off to some place he didn’t want to go. She smiled at him instead and asked, “So what should we do with you?” He tentatively smiled back and shrugged.
She leaned back in her swivel chair and gave him a quizzical look. Then she put both her feet up on the table, a move that Ben thought was a bit unusual. Nobody said anything for a moment while she was staring at him with an intent that scared him a little. He could feel a droplet of sweat run down his temple. One thing he had noticed from the beginning was that she never wore any shoes nor socks, not even slippers. He could see her bare feet underneath the desk, no matter the season.
“Do you want to touch my feet?” she asked. At first he thought he hadn’t heard right, but the question kept echoing through his mind, and he concluded that that was what she actually said.
“Just touch them a little bit,” she said in a soft cooing voice. “Don’t be afraid.”
He didn’t know what to make of this request, but since he wanted to stay in her favor, he decided to just go along with it. Her feet looked big, especially so because she was rather short in general, and they were swollen and covered in callouses.
Uncertain of what was expected of him, he just took the feet into his hands and held them. They smelled of foot sweat, but not obnoxiously so.
“Don’t be so still. Move your hands a little.”
He nodded as he moved his hands gently, following the outlines of her feet.
“Ah, that’s good. Now would you mind to massage them? You can apply a lot of pressure.”
Her moans of pleasure made him blush, and worry about someone overhearing them. What if they got caught? He realized that she should be more worried about this than him, but she seemed oblivious to the danger.
“You need to apply more pressure, or I won’t feel anything.” Her skin was so hard and rough that his fingers started to hurt after a few minutes of working her feet. He did his best to follow all her directions about how much pressure to apply to which spots. ‘Knowing how to do foot massages is a good skill to have’, he thought.
“They are always so hot,” she said, and stretched her toes as if to air them out. Her toes glowed feverishly between his fingers.
“Would you mind going to the fridge and getting some ice-cubes to cool my feet?”
The fridge was in the kitchen, shared by the case workers on the floor. Was he even allowed to enter? Luckily nobody was there, so, as instructed, he quickly threw a handful of ice-cubes into a plastic bag.
The ice cube melted quickly as he ran it over her left foot. She emitted loud sighs of relief that made him glance at the door.
“Would you mind licking them?”
Now this went too far, he was certain of it, and he couldn’t imagine that she would ask this of any of her other clients—which made him feel special. He had no desire to lick her feet, but he was curious what she might tell him to do next, so he moved his chair as close as possible to the table and approached her feet with his face. He moved his tongue towards one foot starting at the heel, then wandering across the rough surface of the sole licking off a cocktail of sweat and salt which didn’t taste so bad after he had overcome his first impulse of repulsion. The only thing that bothered him were the little pieces of dust and sand that he got into his mouth. Her feet weren’t very clean from being barefoot all day. He went on to explore every one of her toes, which were painted with pink nailpolish in an immaculate way.
“Oh, this feels amazing. You are really great at this.”
And that’s when he got into it.
With his hands he massaged the arches of her feet while his tongue swirled around both of her big toes.
It became their weekly ritual.
* * *
Something was wrong today.
“There.” She slammed a piece of paper on the desk for him to read. While he was reading she glared at him, so that he barely knew what the paper said.
“It’s a one-time gig. You just put on that costume, as you can see in the picture, and walk around in it for a bit, entertain the kids and pose for a few photos. Doesn’t sound too hard, does it?”
How was he supposed to survive in a full body furry costume? His body would rid itself of all its fluids. He could already feel the sweat build up on his forehead. Didn’t she want to see him anymore? But then it was a one-time gig, so he could come back. He would certainly need to if it didn’t result in further employment, which it wouldn’t; he would make sure of that.
“I can’t do it. I would die in that costume, and you know that. Besides, I have no experience working with kids. I will be absolutely terrible at it.”
“If you don’t do it, you don’t need to come back here.”
There was no arguing with her.
Ben’s world was shaken. How could she do that to him? He had trusted her like he never had trusted anyone before. He thought he meant something to her.
“Come on, it won’t be so bad, and you can keep the money. Don’t you want to have a bit more money?”
“You need some work experience. I can’t just let you do nothing at all forever. I’m your case worker after all. I wouldn’t be doing my job.”
Maybe that was it. Maybe she had gotten in trouble for never sending him off to work, and now she was doing it just to satisfy her superiors. The thought that she might have to report to someone had never crossed his mind. In any case he came to the realization that he truly did not have a choice in this and began to accept his fate.
* * *
The mascot of We’re Toys was a bunny in swimwear, complete with flippers and snorkeler. Ten minutes before he had to leave he took his last shower, put on a dark cotton T-shirt and a pair of underpants he had bought for the occasion in case there was no private space to change into the costume. He was suffering from a particularly bad outbreak of acne, but he was going to wear a costume, so most people wouldn’t be able to see his face anyway. He downed two shots of vodka to calm his nerves, and then he was off.
Upon arriving he was rushed to change into his costume, got a few instructions he wasn’t able to focus on and was sent out into the fair halls. It was very hard to walk in the costume, especially since he wasn’t able to see his feet which were also impossibly large. Two long bunny ears on his head swayed forth and back. Through his limited vision he saw endless rows of stands advertising toys of all kinds. The halls were crowded with families, kids dragging their parents from attraction to attraction.
Turning around himself awkwardly, he searched for a clock that would allow him to keep track of time. One full hour. His first outbreak of sweat could clearly be attributed to the nerves. He had no idea what to do. How was he supposed to fill an entire hour? He was relieved when a bunch of children surrounded him for photos, and all he had to do was stand there, maybe lift an arm. He didn’t even have to smile; his costume did all the acting for him. For about five minutes he thought it wasn’t actually that bad. To get all this attention whilst being able to hide was even a mildly pleasant experience.
But then came the real sweat. He was absolutely soaked within minutes of starting to feel hot, to the point that he thought his body couldn’t possibly exude any more liquid. Worried to leave puddles of sweat around his feet, he tried not to stay in one spot for too long. Half an hour later he was able to smell himself and knew he had to plan his escape.
He spotted a terrace he was able to get onto for some fresh air. When he got out, he saw a woman sitting on the railing, a cup of coffee in one hand, a cigarette in the other. Her bare feet were dangling against the bars as she waved at him. For a moment he froze, then he turned around and ran back inside. She has taken the day off to see me sweat, he thought.
He shoved the kids aside who tried to get his attention and veered round indignant parents, darted into the backroom and ripped the costume off his body. When he left, he was informed that because he hadn’t stayed in character and hadn’t even done one full shift, he wouldn’t be paid.
He had come to confront her about it in her office, but now that he sat in front of her, the words seemed to be stuck in his throat. He couldn’t get them out, and he was afraid his voice might sound funny or that he might not speak coherently.
“I’m sorry,” she said without a prompt. “I thought it would be fun for you too.”
He didn’t respond.
“You will never have to do it again I promise.”
She got up, walked around the desk, and drew one hand through his bowl cut. If only he had washed his hair this morning. Then she took his right arm and started to gently lift it up over his head. Alarmed he forced his arm down. He’d been sweating more than usual this morning.
“I want to smell your armpits,” she said.
“But I sweat a lot.”
She gently caressed his arm before she tried to lift it again. This time he didn’t refuse. She had to bend down a bit but not very much as she wasn’t very tall. Her nose pressed against his skin as she inhaled, her face deep in his hair. He felt exhilarated.
Corinna Pichl writes short stories exploring the underbelly of human relationships. Writing for her is a short-lived reprieve from pretending to be a normal person. By day she teaches German to refugees and is working on a degree in psychology.
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