We’re on the terrace outside a greenhouse on a lovely ridge. Trees off in the distance, beyond the lawn that rolls gradually across a series of hills and knolls. Trees inside the greenhouse, too. It’s huge. Tropical ones with trunks that look like turtle shells and sound hollow when you knock on them. Orchids and muggy little waterfalls over craggy rocks. Hanging mosses. Exotic grasses. The cactus room. The whole fucking thing. Jack said the locale was inspired. He called me, quote, “a fucking rock star.”
But it’s hot, that’s for sure. The guests are all outside, on the terrace or under the air-conditioned party tents. The more carefree among them are even lolling along the knolls, sitting with their knees hugged to their chests or lying on their sides in little twos and threes. Very casual. Having fun. Ice clinking in low-ball glasses. Sweat. It’s summer, after all, and the silky sunbeams that unroll before twilight start to touch us one by one. In my dreams it always looks like this.
We feast and toast and mingle with drinks. It’s an important part of the industry. I take care of the gory details. The invitations, on time. The caterers, reliable. The microphones, checked. The music, hip. The security, unobtrusive. The bar, stocked. The girls at the check-in table, sedated if they must, but never coked. Making it all run smoothly, this is my responsibility.
But I still don evening wear to the party. Not the sad black shirts of the waitstaff. Not the aggressive, bland suits of security. Not the off-the-rack, most-expensive-thing-at-H&M of the check-in girls. I’m not a server. I’m not help. I’m an assistant. With a desk. My own landline.
The regulars on the circuit know me. They might not remember my name. But they know I work for the hosts. In their memory palaces, I am a closet off the room where the hosts live. Or perhaps a wardrobe. They know who I am, is my point. They can place me. So it’s important I always wear something fresh. Something that stands out without being showy, is what I told the personal shopper on the SaksYou app. She selected a few choice pieces and pushed the descriptions to my phone. I tapped my approval and she had them hand-delivered to my desk in one to two days.
Jack has intimated he sees big things for me. Madeline has intimated I should watch out for Jack. She keeps saying let’s have coffee and chat about where I see myself going. But every time I try to follow up to get something on the books, her snivelly little assistant says Madeline’s booked solid through the end of next week. Madeline and Jack are both working the VIP tent. Keeping their distance from one another.
With my choice pieces I blend in with the guests. I even bring my own guest along. There’s no rule against it, not exactly. In my position you’ve got to take what you can get, embrace the freedom of being unknown. The industry won’t respect you if you don’t push the boundaries. Once the first ninety minutes go smoothly, most guests checked in, everything humming along, I always mingle. A slow circle around the room, or in this case, the ridge. Never too eager. Picking up on hints of dissatisfaction and calculating how to smooth them over. Grabbing a drink off a tray and chatting. Having fun.
At the end of the circuit, I come to the bar, which is where my guest has to stand. I make this clear from the start. They have to wait there and stand at the bar and soak it all in. But there’s free drinks and gluten-free snacks and beautiful people everywhere, I reason. This is what I can offer.
Lately my guest has been Benji, but I don’t think he’ll be filling that role much longer. There’s a sort of bovine quality to him. He just stands there, chewing the cud with his brain. Waiting. That’s exactly what my guest has to do. Enjoy the glow, don’t bother the real guests. He’s perfect. But still. How can you respect someone like that? Who just stands there, someone who actually just stands there?
After eighteen months together I decided he would be my go-to guest. After twenty-four months I’m ready to call it all quits.
The bar is set up outside the double-wide entrance to the greenhouse. Bottles gleaming, bartenders pouring smoothly. These caterers are always reliable. And there’s Benji, off to the side, at the very edge of the bar. Out of the way. He knows the drill, I’ll give him that. Something green in his coupe glass. Just standing there.
If Benji and the bar are twelve o’clock, I’m somewhere around ten thirty on my circuit. My champagne flute bubbles casually in my hand. I’ve just said a laughing goodbye to a rising star in the industry who will soon be a major player. I tilt my head up and bare my teeth. I never stay past my welcome. I get a minute and a half of face time and move on. By this point I know the rhythm. It’s time to sidle up to Benji, exchange champagne for a cocktail and just stand there and enjoy the glow.
But now I hear screaming. From guests. Something is wrong. This is my responsibility.
People falling. Some clutching at their ears, others at their eyes. A weird smoke wafting from the far side of the greenhouse. Smells like poison. My eyes start to cry. This isn’t supposed to happen here.
Guests run down the hills toward the distant forest, tripping and not getting up. Or else rolling downward, balls of ruined high-end summer casual embracing the momentum. Getting away. On the terrace, the blood burbling over their crisp summer whites looks unreal. The way it glows in the golden-hour light after a lifetime spent in the total darkness of the body. Pulses. Popping sounds somewhere. Gunshots echo. Security guards reach for side arms packed in shoulder holsters under light gray suits. They look around, frantic. Gun metal gleams. They can’t figure out who to kill.
Benji grabs his glass and hustles heavily into the greenhouse. Somehow, in the chaos, I laugh. He took the trouble to bring his drink.
Guests still falling all around. Staff too, probably. Shrieking like ghosts. Running in all directions. Do something, I scream at security. This is my responsibility.
A stampede coming my way. Without thinking, I join. We run as a pack into the greenhouse. Mostly servers, a few guests. Flowering bushes and rows of orchids on tables. Where is Benji? I don’t see him anywhere. Somebody latches the door. Guests outside are screaming, banging and scratching on glass, begging to come in. Denied. Blood smears onto the panels beside the doors. Our rapid breaths fog the glass even in the heat. This isn’t the kind of thing that happens here.
Bar bottles break outside. Various liquids flow. Greenhouse panes crack. I run into the next room, which is dry and rocky. Cacti pose like suits of armor. No Benji. Too exposed. Glass shatters somewhere very close. Coming in and people running this way.
I head into the tropical tree room behind the cactus room. It’s huge. Sweltering. A dome a hundred feet tall. A proper forest with those hollow trees. A goddamn city park in here. Dark and shadowy. Rickety leaves that look like spines, lush leaves that look like tongues. Lots more cover. I call out for Benji. No reply. It’s loud with the screams and the shots and the waterfall in the middle of the tropical forest. The water comes rushing down from a rocky cliff half as high as the dome. It gathers in an elegantly decayed stone pool. Benji is in here somewhere, I can feel it. It smells like him.
As I hunt for him, ducking under leaves and weaving between tree trunks, I hold my iPhone up to my face and let it recognize me. Panting. Siri text Benji where are you??? Then I log onto my company’s website, click the HR portal. A terrifying boom. I hit the dirt. I need to change my death benefits. The complimentary $30,000 life insurance policy. The three months of copay-free grief counseling. The right to maintain health insurance coverage in my network, albeit with no further company contribution toward the four-digit monthly premium. Really, they ought to go to Benji.
My password to the HR portal is incorrect. Sweat drips into my eyes as I reset it, open my email, click the link.
It’s all closing in now. The room is full of people and they’re falling, crashing, bleeding, dying. Sirens somewhere ridiculously far away. People try to clean their wounds with the water from the elegantly decayed stone pool, crawling on their bellies over the gritty foot paths between beautiful low-hanging trees. Screaming for help. I run, high-stepping over them. Further into the depths of the greenhouse.
I’m in a kind of hallway between two bigger rooms. A trellis arch covered in leaves runs above my head the length of the hall. A tunnel of ivy.
To prove I am human I tap on four blurry photos from the grid of nine, selecting those that contain a fire hydrant. But the HR portal is offline for maintenance. In the meantime, HR invites me to download a PDF in order to request changes to my status, which will be processed in three to five business days. I click on the file, but without the paid version of Acrobat I can’t fill it in. Breathing hard, I struggle to scroll through the new terms of service in the App Store so I can accept them. Finally I tap to purchase Acrobat Pro Mobile, but I need to confirm the security code on the back of my credit card. My wallet. I have no idea what happened to my wallet. Those shots just came from really close. I return to the web browser to search for an alternative, but when I tap the back arrow, my session on the HR portal has expired. I click to log in again. Siri, where the fuck is Benji? I keep thinking over and over, this is the last thing I’ll do before I die.
Kim Fu Interview
by Sean Sam
... they envisioned the book like an illuminated manuscript from the Middle Ages ...
by Briar Ripley Page
... Chantal’s hands hovered over the stinking thing on the bedsheets ...