by J.R. 8th
A soft ding rang as the elevator doors slid open, revealing a huddled group of five well-dressed young men. An older man wearing a navy suit jacket and a light-brown tie walked in and pressed the button for the fourth floor, then leaned into the corner adjacent to the crowd. His hair was a sharp, dark-brown hue, and he had a briefly grown mustache running along his upper lip like a caterpillar. The walls were made of glistening steel, reflecting the man and the group perfectly. One of the young men, a blonde with a cigarette dangling from his lips, turned to the newcomer and said, “Hey, sir - do you have a light? My friends here seem to have forgotten theirs.” He nudged one of the men with his elbow.
The older man dug into his jacket pocket and pulled out an old book of matches. “Sure, have at it.”
Looking pretty healthy for a smoker, he thought.
The blonde quickly snatched it and lit his cigarette. The reflection of the match’s flame filled the elevator with an orange-brown hue, only to die out when it was extinguished.
“Thank you, sir.”
He handed the matches back, but the older man said to keep it, and that it was no problem. But it was, for he was quickly sickened by the scent of the expanding smoke.
“I didn’t catch your name,” the blonde said.
“Oh, okay - nice to meet you, Hank.”
Hank leaned back into the wall, and the group began mumbling among themselves again.
For a moment the mumblings of the group ceased, and the elevator was silent. Only the soft taps of their shuffling feet and the puffing exhales of the blond young man could be heard.
As if to break this silence, the blonde turned to the older one and said, “Say, are you here for the interview? With Mr. Donner?” The whole group stared at the older man now, eyes bright with interest. Hank began fiddling with his fingers in his jacket pocket.
“Yes, I am. Do you know him?” He leaned to the side as he scratched at an itch on his back.
The blonde took another sucking puff of his cigarette. “Oh yes, we all do. We’re his... associates.”
“Anything I should know about him? You know, just for safe measure?”
The blonde turned to the group with a smirk, then back at the man.
“He’s an old bastard, that’s for sure - in his seventies, I think. He’s ruthless, so be careful.”
Another of the young men laughed and said, “Yeah, he’s a stickler.”
“He’s got bad bones, osteoporosis or something. Still kicking though,” the blonde mentioned.
The elevator dinged again and came to a stop, and the group moved towards the door.
“This is our floor - good luck with the interview,” the blonde said. Smoke still crawled through his lips as he walked out, floating upwards like a dead man’s spirit.
“Thanks, have a good one.” Hank said. They left, and he stood alone with the whir of the elevator.
He emerged on the next floor, into bustling sounds of an office - clicking typewriters, soft conversations, and the almost rhythmic thump of footsteps. Briefly he thought he heard a humming, maybe even a chanting from below, but he disregarded it. His feet squeaked against the tile floor as he walked out of the elevator and started through the hallway, toward the opening with a notice that stated “OFFICES OF PARACELSUS.” As he turned through it, a matrix of cubicles stretching to the edge of the building was revealed, and the bustling sounds he’d heard grew. Many people - hundreds, maybe - sat hunched over computers, typing wildly as others wound through the rows grasping papers and coffee mugs. At the end of the room a wall with a door and a thin window stood. He walked reluctantly towards this wall through the row of space that divided the cubicles.
The entire room seemed to emit a piney scent.
Like a car’s air freshener, he thought.
He searched for the source of the smell as he traversed the aisle and saw that each desk had a little green pine tree pinned to its side, almost uniformly positioned.
Nearly tripping on a box, he walked up to the desk where a small woman with bright red glasses sat typing. A bronze nameplate was perched on her desk stating SECRETARY.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” Hank said. “I’m here to see Mr. Donner. Is he in?”
The woman kept typing, but peered up at him. “Are you here for the interview?” she asked.
“Yes, with Mr. Donner - I’m Hank Wareheim” The woman stopped typing now, and looked up at him with an open smile. “Have a seat Mr. Wareheim.” She watched as Hank went to sit at the small leather bench placed next to the door, then seemed to continue typing. Unbeknownst to Hank, she stared at him as he waited - peering through her glasses, tapping gibberish onto a blank document.
He sat restlessly, fiddling with his bag and checking his watch. He thought he’d been on time - if anything, a bit early. But it had to have been at least 10 minutes, and there was still no sign of Mr. Donner.
He got up and walked to the secretary, leaning in to match her height.
“Excuse me, ma’am? When will Mr. Donner be arriving? I’m a bit tight on time,” he said.
“Oh, he’s already here - over there, in his office.” She pointed to the window in the office’s wall. Inside a short old man stooped over his desk, holding a wrinkled paper and an empty glass.
“Well, is he ready for the interview?” Hank demanded, a bit flustered now.
“Whenever you are. Just go right on in, Mr. Wareheim.” Hank paused, looked at the window with an open mouth, then back to the secretary.
“Well what’ve I been waiting for? Was he ready all this time?” He waved his arms around in the air as he talked, but quickly placed them to his side with embarrassment.
“Just go on in, Mr. Wareheim. He’s waiting for you.” The woman repeated. She looked back down to her keyboard, clicked a few things, then began genuinely typing.
Hank let out a disgruntled growl, then walked to the office door and knocked. He waited for a second, then opened it. The short old man he’d seen through the window stood looming over his desk, sipping from a glass. The room smelled of pungent alcohol, with a slight hint of the air freshener from outside - his desk had a little tree pinned to its side, too. “Ah, you must be Mr. Wareheim,” the man said excitedly.
“You can call me Hank,” Hank said.
“It’s very nice to meet you then, Hank.” The man replied.
He gave Hank a firm hug, and a slap on the back. The bristles of hair on the man’s chin scratched against Hank’s cheek.
“Oh yes, It’s good to meet you, too, Mr. Donner. I’m here for the job you’re offering, the chemist?” Mr. Donner shuffled back to his desk and said, “Of course. You seem like prime material, you know.” He sat down with a thump and grabbed another glass from his desk.
“Sit down, Hank.” He carelessly pointed to the leather seat that sat across from him, spilling some of his drink. “Oh Jesus, look what I’ve done.” He rustled into his pockets and pulled out a red handkerchief, then wiped at the puddle of liquid. A brownish-red splotch was left in the wood of his desk, spreading corrosively. “Sorry about that, Hank. Anyways - what makes you think you’d like this role? It can be hard at times, even painful.”
“Well, I’ve always admired what you and Paracelsus do here. Pharmaceutics has always been a goal of mine - it saves lives, gives people what they need to go on. You’re really out to help people, and that’s something I’d like to be a part of,” Hank said.
Mr. Donner took another sip of his drink, and looked at Hank for a moment. “That’s very inspiring, Hank, and I like your attitude - but the recipients of our products demand a certain quality, and I need to ensure that standard is met with your role. Remind me of your academic background?”
“I spent three years at UC Davis earning my doctorate degree, then another four years at UCSF to get my Pharm.D.”
“Oh, very good, Hank.” Mr. Donner laid back in his chair, fiddling with his empty glass. “What was that like?”
“I really enjoy being at San Francisco. The things I’ve learned to do here are amazing, and the lessons are very interesting - and I love the city. I think I’ve really thrived.”
“That’s good to hear. I love it too - been here all my life.” Mr. Donner reached for a bottle from underneath his desk, clinking it down and opening it. “Say, can I get you anything to drink? I’ve got a lot to choose from.” He began pouring him a glass.
Mr. Donner pulled a small vial of red powder from his coat pocket and popped open its cap, then poured the substance into the glass. It very slowly diluted into the drink, changing its hue from a light-orange to a dark red.
“What’s that stuff?” Hank asked. Mr. Donner screwed the cap back on and placed it in his pocket.
“It’s one of our newest products, Hank. One of the things you’ll be helping to create. Would you like some?” He held out the glass to Hank, and the corners of his mouth curled up into a smile. “It’s really quite good for you. It makes you ever so young, and keeps you that way for as long as you like.” A swirl of inky red twisted around in the drink, cloudy and unappealing.
“I’d really rather not, Mr. Donner, I shouldn’t drink this early - I’ve got some things to deal with after this. But how does that work, if you don’t mind me asking?” Mr. Donner paused for a moment.
“I think you’d really enjoy it. After all, how can you be a part of this if you can’t even try the things we produce?” He shook the glass a little bit, swirling the drink around.
“Well, I don’t even know what it is. How does it do that, make you young?” Hank pressed.
Mr. Donner laughed, then perched his hand on his knee, still holding the glass. “I don’t know a thing or two about it myself, you’ll have to ask the boys down in the third floor - if you get the chance, that is. They’re the ones I’ve bugged about getting the stuff for myself. I just know it’s very sacred, very effective. Fixes up your bones, smooths your skin. It’s very important to my clients, and to me.” He swallowed the glass of liquid down in a single gulp, then grabbed the bottle and another vial. “I’m getting to be quite an old man. I’ll be eighty-eight by next month. It's been so long since I’ve had that thrill of youth - something I miss very much. But this stuff - and the other products we have - just gives me a chill, a spirit unlike any other. It’s beautiful.” The old man began looking off into the picture hung behind Hank’s head - a painting of an orchard, with an old Ford truck driving by. He seemed entranced by it, almost within it. But as Hank shuffled around in his chair, he quickly turned back to him.
“Are you sure you don’t want any for yourself? It comes straight from our best men.”
Hank’s knee began to restlessly bounce against the floor, and he turned to look through the window. “Well, if you truly insist. You make it sound so great, how could I not?” he said with a smile. He leaned in to Mr. Donner, and carefully held the glass.
“That’s it, good choice,” Mr. Donner muttered. His drink was poured, and Hank chugged it down, slapping the glass back onto the desk. He almost immediately began to cough, and he brought the back of his hand to his mouth.
“Oh, that tastes horrible. Why is it so salty?” he choked.
Mr. Donner chortled as he placed the vial back into his pocket. “It’s bad, isn’t it? You get used to it - maybe yours will be better. My people would be delighted to get a better flavor.”
“I’ll do the best I can,” Hank said. He ran his tongue along his teeth in an attempt to rid them of the taste.
Mr. Donner placed the bottle to the side, and pulled himself up straight in his chair.
“Well then, Hank - tell me a bit more about yourself. How have you been physically?”
“Physically?” Hank asked in confusion.
“Yes. Physically - you know, fitness-wise. Do you exercise regularly?”
“I suppose I’ve done well - I’ve passed all of my highschool fitness tests, and try to get exercise pretty frequently.”
“Good, very good. Any diseases?”
“Um, none that I know of right now. I hope I don’t have any.”
“Do you have a family history of diseases?”
Hank looked at Mr. Donner with discomfort. “With all due respect, how is that important?” Hank said.
Mr. Donner leaned toward him a bit. “I don’t want you to contaminate the product, Hank. It may seem strange right now, but you’ll understand soon enough. A lot depends on this.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Hank said.
“Just answer the question, Hank. If you want this, you’ll answer it.”
Hank began to smell something putrid, but only very briefly - the scent of the air fresheners seemed to overpower it. “I honestly don't know that well - I have an uncle who’s diabetic, but other than that we’re pretty much disease-free.”
“Very, very good, Hank. So far, I think you’d be a prime addition to our company. I do have one more question for you before we make a decision, though,” Mr. Donner said. In the background, the humming noise that Hank had heard in the hall grew, and a thumping sound came in regular intervals from below.
“Really, only one more? It’s barely been five minutes,” Hank replied.
“Oh yes, we’ve got to make these interviews quick so we can get you all set. We only need this basic info, then you’re off to making more of our product.”
Mr. Donner pulled open a drawer in his desk, and took out a small slip of paper. He held it up and began reading it aloud: “Are you willing to do whatever you can to get this role, and, if you do, are you willing to shed your blood in the name of Paracelsus?” He set the paper down, and meticulously placed his glasses back where they originally were. “Sorry, the boys said I have to read it exactly as it is, just as a formality.”
“Well, that’s a bit dramatic - but yes, I’ll do whatever I can for this, and in the name of this company, if it helps me get this job.” Mr. Donner began to smile again, and swiftly picked himself up out of his chair.
“Well, I suppose that’s that - welcome to Paracelsus, Mr. Wareheim. I’ll call up the boys from downstairs and we’ll get you set for the job.”
Someone knocked at the door, and the voice of the young blonde was heard to say, “He ready, Mr. Donner?”
“Look, they’re already here for you, Hank!” Mr. Donner exclaimed.
Hank hoisted himself out his chair, flustered. He demanded, “But Mr. Donner, the job? Right now? I can’t do that now, Mr. Donner, I told you I had things to finish up today. I’m really not ready at all right now!”
Mr. Donner grabbed for the doorknob, his glass and a new vial in hand, the corners of his mouth curling up into an enormous smile.
“For this job, I don’t think you can ever be.”