The scent of patchouli gave her away. Well, almost. Every schoolboy knows that patchouli can be used as a perfume, an insect repellent, incense, herbal tea, an excuse not to bathe, and/or to cover the scent of smoke, drink and drugs on clothing. Well, maybe not every schoolboy knows, but maybe some hippie schoolboys and girls from the 1960s and ’70s. And, of course it goes without saying, East Indians.
Why this woman smelled of patchouli I could not readily say without asking her outright. Possibly because she was either a throwback Thursday hippie, was fighting off mosquitoes or termites, didn’t bathe regularly, or was, in fact, an East Indian. I opted for the latter, since she looked East Indian and she was neatly dressed in a sari and not at all as an unbathed hippie, nor of that era, judging from her apparent age. In any case, it was probably not polite to approach a perfect stranger and casually query, “Say, pardon me for asking, but is there any particular reason why you reek of patchouli.” Doesn’t go over well. At all.
So, in all honesty and to get technical about it, since there are so many options here, the scent of patchouli didn’t exactly give her away at all. It should also be stated that while patchouli normally has a heavy and strong odor, hers was faint — trace even — and not a bit overpowering like it can be. In other words, she did not really reek of patchouli at all. The fact that I’d even noticed it as patchouli speaks volumes of my past life, not to mention my proclivity for a bare soupçon of patchouli. In a word, I found the woman in a sari standing on the other side of the counter across from me, irresistible.
And that this attractive woman walked into my present life at all was only because she was obliged to. You see, I was assigned that day to the HR department of Pangborne & Sons, and she had come to be interviewed for a job. I don’t work in HR. I just happened to be subbing temporarily for one who was, Louise Prufoot, who had been called away because of a family emergency. I didn’t know the first thing about HRing, since I worked in the shipping department, but forms were given me by the office manager, whose name was Abner Billingsley, to hand out to potential employees, as well as an interview “check sheet” to ask them the right questions, and I was instructed to do the best I could until Louise got back. The check sheet turned out to be six pages long, and asked questions that not even I could answer. Why was I being punished, I asked Billingsley. Ours was such a tiny company; why all these questions? And why me? The office manager assured me that it was a snap and that I probably wouldn’t have to interview anybody at all, but just receive their resumes and basic information which I could pass on to Louise when she got back to work. But if the occasion arose where I might feel inclined to do a preliminary interview, it wasn’t necessary to ask a potential hiree all the questions, just a few random ones that seemed pertinent to the specific job the person was seeking, based on the corresponding application form responses, their job resume, and that which also served the company’s interests. It would help Louise, when she returned, to determine if it was worth the company’s while to conduct a more complete follow-up interview. I looked over all of these and quickly realized why I was in shipping and not in HR.
“What if I screw up?” I asked.
Billingsley frowned. “If you screw up? You’re planning to screw up?”
“No, I-I’m not planning to, but I can’t deny the probability that I might, considering my lack of experience.”
“I see. Well, in that case, then I expect that when Louise returns to work she might very well be interviewing someone to take over your job.”
Did I mention that Abner Billingsley could be categorized as a “pitchfork manager” who was not one to kid around with? He could also be categorized as something else as well, but I best leave it at that. I broke out in a sweat. I also prayed that no one would show up on my watch and that Louise Prufoot would waltz in at any moment and release me from this burden.
That’s when Patchouli Woman waltzed in instead.
Well, she didn’t exactly waltz in. I may be mistaken, but I don’t think women in saris can waltz in all that gracefully. She simply walked in. Period. I sniffed the air. A trace of patchouli. There’s something about the attenuated fragrance of patchouli that conjures up in me earthy, nutty-sweet, tangy, fertile, soft-wet-mud, minty-dried-leaves-on-a-forest-floor thoughts. Unlike full-strength patchouli, which can be overpowering, even offensive to some noses, a tenuous hint of it transports me into another realm, another dimension, beyond sight and sound. Rod Serling would have understood. I stared at her, mesmerized. She gave me a passing glance — more like a coup d’oeil — looked around the office, then back at me. When I didn’t respond, she cleared her throat. I came to.
“Uh, good morning,” I managed to wheeze. “May I help you?”
“Good morning. I’m looking for Mrs. Prufoot. Is she in? I have an appointment with her today. An interview for employment?”
Oh, God no, I thought to myself. No-no-no-no-no! This was a call-back thing. That meant the interview check sheet. I just knew it.
I swallowed. Dry swallowed. “I-I’m terribly sorry, but Louise . . . I mean Mrs. Prufoot, is unfortunately unavailable. A family emergency has called her away.”
Patchouli Woman regarded me with somewhat more interest, or at least with one arched eyebrow. I should probably interject here that I’m not using the term “Patchouli Woman” in any pejorative way. Au contraire. I simply did not know her name yet. To me, she smelled divine, and what better way than to honor her as such.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” she said, as she sized me up. “Then perhaps you can direct me to someone else to conduct the interview.” Yes, she’d sized me up, all right.
I swallowed again. “I would be delighted to do so myself,” I began, then decided to come clean, “but I would be lying to you if I were to say I am adept at interviewing. I’m merely subbing for Mrs. Prufoot until she returns. Perhaps you could come back tomorrow or the next day? She ought to be back by then. We are a bit short-handed, you see, and I don’t even belong in this department. I’m in shipping.”
“Yes. . . . I, uh, ship.”
“I see. So you’re saying that you do not feel competent to conduct the interview now. That’s most unfortunate. You see, I’m not sure I can return another day. I have other interviews scheduled.”
“Oh.” I think I might have looked crestfallen at that point. I felt crestfallen at any rate. If she could not return, I would most certainly be questioned, either by Louise, or by the office manager. Louise might be more understanding, but I wasn’t so sure about Billingsly. I broke out in a sweat again. My second sweat break-out and it was not yet even 10:00 a.m.! “Uh, well . . . ahem . . . I-I guess what I’m saying is that I could read questions to you from a six-page script and jot down your answers, which I could then pass on to Mrs. Prufoot for her review.”
“All six pages?”
“No, no, just a few pertinent random questions.”
“I see. But how would you know which random questions are pertinent?”
I thought about it a moment. “I wouldn’t, I guess. Well, maybe if you were to first tell me what job you are interested in filling, I might be able to tailor a few pertinent questions.”
She cocked her head slightly to one side as she observed me, as though she were judging whether or not to reply. Then she said, “If I were to tell you that Mrs. Prufoot was to interview me to replace herself as your company’s HR officer, would that help you?”
I could not hide my shock. “Replace Louise? You want to replace Louise Prufoot?”
“Yes. But let me be clear: It’s not to take the job away from her. Rather, she confided to me that she plans to retire and she wants to interview a few people and recommend to her superiors whom she thinks best qualified for the position. Evidently you were not apprised of her intentions.”
“No, I was not. It comes as complete surprise to me . . . I-I guess because I’m in shipping and not in management.”
She nodded. “So it would appear.” She paused again, and I could see that she was cogitating over something. Then: “May I make a proposal to you?”
“Yes. Seeing as how I already have ample experience in Human Relations from prior employment abroad, I would like to propose that I save you the time and evident angst of struggling through your six-page check list on your own, and instead allow me to go over it myself, choose the questions most apt to the job description, fill in my responses, turn these back over to you to submit to Mrs. Prufoot, and then let her decide whether or not to recommend me for the position.”
I gaped at her with awe. “You would do that for me?” I breathed.
She nodded with a warm smile. “I would with great pleasure.”
Not only did she smell nice, she was now my savior as well. Her name was Chandana.
Even if that means sandalwood in Hindi, she would always remain for me Patchouli Woman.