I Work for a King
I work for a king with bad teeth. He sips Gatorade from a giraffe skull while I scrub a ghost from the stone.
"What is your opinion on wax?" he muses.
"Against," I say.
I consider. "A red herring."
He touches his zipper. Conviction arouses him.
"Remove your blouse," he kings, and I hurl a dart at his left eye. I keep darts in my pocket for occasions like these. Miss on purpose. We pause, then laugh. It's very sitcom.
My castle employment is a hairy experiment and we like to keep each other guessing. Flirtation, sunburn, pranks, typos. Like nothing counts.
The king used to own a lot of pet stores but now he owns everything. Deep pores, pixilated face, paper crown—he is a hated guy. "My god," he grins. His braces form a fence of rubies. "This is why I keep you around."
"For me it's the health insurance," I say.
Truth is, the silence of the castle Aspirins my headaches. Everyone who lives in this city is an actor, so the territory violets, scarlets and plums, each block dressed like a stage. You can't imagine the noise. The ambulancing. Goddish light, plastic breadsticks, pigeons in glitter. Music hurls through alleys and the traffic lights shimmy. Fake corn. Burlap. You pass a mannequin, chances are it's weeping, in the middle of divorce. Dogs with pierced ears and opinions on AI fill the delis.
I don't go out much.
But when I do, I mess up. Picklejuice in bars, chapped hands, clunky shoes. I'm choreography-dyslexic. Just a cornkid from the Rust Belt who came here after a man in good cologne spiked the soil and kept it hush. Meanwhile: fevers, tumors, emergency rooms. Then papered stalks, then baby coffins, and then no hush at all.
They like the king back home. They think he's their cousin.
I'm an orphan, so I don't miss much about Cornland aside from the tornado drills, which were cozy.
Sometimes, when I go out in the city, I tell people who I work for. Sometimes I tell them I barbecue the toes of my exes. Both statements pull their features into precisely the same face.
"Give me a raise," I flirt in the castle, across from the king, plunging rag into bucket. Backache.
No product has delivered yet, so we're trying the cheap stuff. GHOST CLEANER, reads the label. Tough on spirits, corrodes unrest, dehaunts 5X faster than the leading brand! Ingredients: Tap water, hacker spit, glyphosate, Sriracha.
Problem is the castle stone was fashioned in the fifteenth century, pre-revulsion, pre-trypophobia—a porous, forever material. Recipe: Ox blood, horse hair, and egg.
Ghosts love it.
"Our ingredients never mix right," the king pouts, licking his fingers, tonguing lambchop from his teeth. It's lambing season.
"You're the diet coke," I riff. "I'm the mento."
"Boom!" He claps his hands with glee, upsets my stomach.
"I hate you," I chuckle.
Which halts the conversation until the banks around us close.
"Did you get her out yet?" the king toddlers from his throne. He manages a cartoon farm on his iPad for fun.
The base of his throne is a tank, thick with neon, boring fish. Lamb bones curl like pencil shavings on the floor and dusk glazes the glass orange.
He's referring to the first wife of the first lord.
Story goes: she birthed girl after girl. No son. No heir. So her husband locked her in the west tower, as they do. Octagon of wood, size of closet, spongey floorboards. Cherry wood, purple blood—I would know. Her brothers arrived to rescue her but the lord slaughtered them, tossed them from the room above hers so their meat fell outside her window. He was a sloppy butcher. He starved his wife to death.
Her name was Lilias. She is one of four ghosts here, by far the most annoying. This room used to be her chamber. She's always cracking the phones, groping the guests, fucking with the wifi. I think she's just hungry.
"It's not working," I say. "We should try something else."
I shrug. "I mean, she was here first."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
What I don't tell him is that I like having Lilias around. Whenever the king tries to pinch my ass, she blows in his ear, which spooks him good. She is a windy friend. Mother of daughters.
"I'm bored," the king whines. "Find me a peach."
Cabin-fevered, I skip from the chamber, to the hall. I like the elevator, because the ghosts don't.
Outside, I fumble through twilit Manhattan, Yelping grocery stores. I spend a day's wages on an iced coffee too big to hold. The weather is warm tonight, and trash flutters sexually. Wars are always warm. Its litter reproduces. I study the patterns online.
Prespring, tulips burst from collars of tissue paper. Men kiss. Orphans hunt for chocolate. Despite the temperature and all the pastel, no jokes spark in the streets. No peaches, either. We're still at war, after all, even if the battles thrash offstage, underground. I ransack the fruit aisles. Coffee batteries my limbs.
Almost 10 p.m. and no luck. I enter one last shop—a place where the cashiers resemble crows and the interior a bad imitation of Italy. "Do you have peaches?" I ask, my skirt fussy from sweat.
They point to a basket near the sleep medicine. It contains several shriveled, small fruits. Blushed, bruised, skin veined as though stung by a jellyfish.
I touch one. Squeeze a little. Babyfat, babyfuzz.
"Too brutal," I mutter. Decide to buy none.
(I can be very political, when caffeinated.)
A new idea swells inside me so I dash across the street. Purchase falafel and fries from a lime restaurant, then sprint to the castle at 725 5th Ave., which, from the outside, resembles the offspring of a missile and a staircase. Photos of this castle clog Instagram—American flag emojis, thumbs, selfies, sunspecs. It is a pattern that paves my dreams.
I return to Lilias's chamber. The king dozes in his throne, fetused and sucking his thumb. Doesn't snore, despite what you'd think. He is a deep and milky sleeper. I consider suffocating him, then decide against it.
I arrange the still-warm food on the mantel. Don't eat a single fry, which is hard. Ascend to the west tower, where I sleep on a sheepskin rug. Nowadays, Lilias stays the hell away from this room, but I can still see her blood on the wood—they say she tried and failed to kill herself, on her own terms, when the lord locked her here.
I edge the rug over her stain and close my twitching eyes. Everybody has to work for somebody.
At dawn, I rush downstairs and check the mantel. The food is gone.
After I trash the wrappers, the king wakes hungry, his crown on the floor. "Out all night and nothing?" he growls. "I'm speechless."
I shrug cute. "And I'm peachless."
We pass the day playing make-believe combat. He likes to squirt his watergun at me when I do something wrong—likes to make my clothes too wet to wear—but I wear them and I wear them. For the first time in months, the wifi works without any purgatory.
By evening, it's clear that Lilias has left us for good.
"I'll kill you," I snap when the king pinches my ass and no wind arrives to help.
"You won't," he smiles, his ruby braces gleaming. "You'd never."
Tess Gunty has an MFA in creative writing from NYU. She has a short story forthcoming in The Iowa Review and a work of prose poetry forthcoming in Flash. In 2010, one of her short stories won the Scholastic Art & Writing American Voice Award and was subsequently read on NPR.