I submitted this short story to a writing competition with NYC Midnight at the beginning of this year. This was the first time I ever pushed myself to submit my own writing for review, and I never would have written it if I hadn’t started off writing, what my brain thought was a terrible story. I have a perfectionist, fear-driven brain, but with the help of my brother and sister-in-law who were also participating in the competition, I managed to tease out an interesting and haunting story. I ended up winning first place in my category for round one, which I was blown away by. All this to say: don’t listen to your perfectionist brain–it’s probably lying to you. Hope you enjoy the piece!
Parameters for the story: genre: political satire, topic: beautification, character: guarantor
Photo by Ben Rosett on Unsplash
At first, most people went to the Jungle willingly; most scoffed at the idea of a haircut and a fine suit that they were mandated to wear. But soon rumors spread of the horrors of the unregulated dead zone. Food was sparse, and whispers of cannibalism made a French cuff an enviable alternative. The guarantors did their job well when they said that they could solve the homelessness crisis. These days it’s become routine for us all. We were always invisible, but now they don’t even think we exist.
Today is my weekly appointment. My stomach rumbles as I climb the steps to the Cumulus Building. I managed to keep my clothes relatively clean this week and am allowed to enter through the front doors along with the rest of the employees. I’ve discovered that if I can find construction sites with large diagonal beams I am able to essentially sleep standing up, leaving my clothes mostly wrinkle- and dirt-free.
I notice a young man, no older than twenty, tacking up posters to the bulletin board inside the lobby. “Reelect Mayor Trotter and keep our city clean!” He leans back, making sure that the poster is straight and uncluttered by other notices. I glance down at my suit and bite the inside of my cheek. Mayor Trotter was the man who spearheaded the “See No Evil” initiative. He somehow convinced the council that he could solve homelessness, and, desperate as they were, they accepted his terms with little dispute. The people of this city decided long ago that they needn’t help the houseless so long as they didn’t have to look at them, and Mayor Trotter, with the help of the guarantors, discovered a way he could take it a step further. What better way to take care of a problem than to hide it in plain sight?
I step into the packed elevator. It becomes clear only in these close quarters that I am among others who, like me, have their appointments today. A dark suit can hide the dirt, but it cannot hide the smell. A few people sniff the air, wrinkling their noses—housed people. The rest of us know not to look up; we know not to draw attention.
I step out onto the fifteenth floor along with my odorous companions. The receptionist sits across from us in front of blinding white walls; a low-fi beat thumps, welcoming us to our renewal appointments.
“You can head back to the showers.”
A hidden door appears to the left, revealing showers and a locker room. Every time I enter this door, it’s like I’m becoming visible again. Out there, no one knows I exist. But in here, they all know who I am. A strange relief swims over me as the door closes behind me. I remove my clothes and place them in the industrial washing machine that will dry clean and press my suit, then I turn the shower to its hottest setting and stand beneath the running water while my skin turns a shade of bright pink. My body looks alien to me—skin sagging against a once full belly, now starving for sustenance. My stomach growls again. Soon, I tell it.
Once I’ve scrubbed away the scent and grime of the week, I exit the shower and head to the back of the locker room for the rest of my appointment. The door opens to a team of beauticians, each with a sour smile on their face. My guarantor is there as well. She is tall and slim, her chin cuts through her hair with precision as she turns to look at me.
“538. Good to see you. Are you well?”
“Yes, ma’am, very well.”
“No discoveries, I hope?”
“Not that I know of, ma’am.”
Her eyes narrow slightly. “Your beard is longer than regulation. Are you sure no one noticed?”
I shift uneasily. My naked body leaving nothing to fidget with, I scrunch my toes together and into the carpet. “Pretty sure,” I say.
“538, it’s my job to make sure the streets of this city stay beautiful. If you’re not going to help me, we may need to consider displacement. Is that what you want?”
“No, ma’am. I’m sorry, my razor fell out of my briefcase. It was only two days, I swear.”
She smiled wide, her teeth resembling the wall of the lobby. “Of course. Well, let’s get you back in shape then, shall we?”
The beauticians set to work shaving my face, my nose and ear hairs. They mask and massage my face, peeling away layers of age and dirt, exfoliate my body and rub me down with solutions meant to keep me smelling fresher longer. Their rhythmic movements put me in a trance, and I remember my first day spent on the streets.
I’d lost my job due to budget cuts and for months had been unsuccessful at securing another position. Companies were automating more than ever before, leaving little room for workers like myself. The savings dried up, then went the apartment. Until all I had left was the car.
I don’t know how they knew, but the first night I settled into the backseat of my car, there was a rapping at my window and a bright light shining in my face. Three men in suits had surrounded my car and were demanding I exit the vehicle.
“You’re going to have to come with us,” said the tallest. I can still feel his firm grip on my arm, the grip that said you have no escape.
I was quickly thrust into the back of a van and brought to the Cumulus Building. I’d walked past this place plenty of times when I worked downtown—a 50-story building with dark windows and a sharp spire slicing into the sky. They led me to what I now know to be the processing room where a guarantor explained my options.
“I just want to go home,” I said.
“Obviously you were incapable of keeping your home, which is what brought you here.” She swiped through a catalog of suits, circling the ensembles she thought fit my frame. “Now, we will provide you with a meal on your weekly appointment, and you will be allowed to stay in the city. This is a well-respected city, a clean city; and so long as you help us maintain that respect, you’ll be allowed to stay. Yes, the dark gray classic fit with the flat fronts should do nicely.”
“What if I refuse?”
Her eyes bolted up from the catalog, her gaze now ice cold. “That would be unwise.” She pressed a button and a screen illuminated to my right showing a gruesome scene. It seemed to be some kind of camp. Makeshift shelters crafted from ripped blankets and holey tarps draped across the screen, accented by a visible layer of filth—caked-on mud and what looked like dried blood.
I looked closer and could see a woman wandering through the camp, perhaps seeking her own shelter. Her hair was a wild mess of curls, and her clothes devoured her gaunt frame. In the corner of the screen I noticed someone peering out at her from behind a shipping container; they seemed to be signaling to others, and sure enough, I saw at least six more closing in on her.
“No!” I yelled.
But they were on her, a swarm of bodies closing in on their prey. Until all that was left was the stain of her blood on the pavement—a fresh coat of paint.
My heart pounded as I digested what I’d just witnessed. Soon my stomach revolted and I vomited onto the pearly floor.
The guarantor returned her gaze to the catalog. “Like I said: unwise.”
I left that first night with a pressed shirt, a razor, and a briefcase to store my essentials and maintain the illusion that I was just another professional out for a stroll. It quickly became apparent that the people at the Cumulus Building would be my only allies from now on. Every once in a while, I would notice someone with a similar briefcase and cautiously ask them if they too had met with the guarantors, but they would look at me as if I’d asked them to strip naked and would either walk away as quickly as possible or tell me to fuck off.
Finally, several months after that first night, a woman in a brown pencil skirt and dark checkered button-down blouse whispered back, “Are you crazy? Do you want to get sent to the Jungle? Mind your business!”
“I thought that was only if we refused to go to our appointments.”
“Your pretty green, huh? Look, keep to yourself. Plenty of folks have been crated off for intermingling. The less attention you can bring to yourself, the better.” Then she was gone, disappeared in the crowd of the well-dressed masses—just another citizen.
My eyes flutter open as I try to picture her face, but only her words echo in my head.
The blond beautician buttons up my clean shirt and threads my arms through the jacket sleeves.
“Perfect, let’s do one last inventory,” says my guarantor. “Hair, check. Teeth, check. Nails, check. Where are his shoes? Yes, thank you, Jeanie. Shoes, check. Looks like we’ve got you back in shape. You may proceed to your meal.”
My stomach roars in approval, and I walk toward the next door at the back of the salon.
“I won’t warn you again about that facial hair. One more slip . . .” She clicks her tongue, tilting her head slightly to shrug off any blame of my demise.
A flash of wild curly hair being swallowed in red fills my vision, and my body seizes with terror. “Yes, ma’am,” I say, then slowly turn back to the door.
Upon exiting the salon, the smells of cooked noodles, alfredo, and chicken fill my nose, and my fear quickly departs, replaced by ravenousness. Another guarantor is there to adorn me with a plastic coverall to ensure my suit remains untainted. I’m salivating as he ties the plastic behind my back.
“Thank you,” I whisper before lunging forward and satisfying the ache in my belly. It gurgles, finally satiated. I let out a loud sigh of relief. When I first started coming here, the fear of the Jungle was enough to keep me coming to my appointments, but now it’s my stomach holding the reins, reminding me daily of how badly I need this place. I pick up the plate and begin to lick it clean. The guarantor is eyeing me, his scorn for my desperation evident.
“All right, you’re done,” he says, yanking the plate away from my hands and gesturing to a damp cloth. I wipe sauce away from my shaven face. A milky film still coats the inside of my mouth, and I savor the last of the flavors.
After one last lookover by the guarantor, I’m directed out yet another door, which spits me out to the other side of the fifteenth floor lobby. Without a word, the receptionist hands me a new briefcase.
“Thank you for keeping our city clean,” she recites. I exit out the way I came, the dark building now looming behind me as I descend the steps. My stomach is now quiet and content, and I’m invisible once more.