Floss got so drunk that shift that she stopped in the middle of the walk from the kitchen to Table Seventeen and took a drink straight from Benjamin McCandless’ girlfriend’s martini instead of slowing her stride to let the mix of alcohol and oil, Grey Goose and olive juice, settle. She was the only bitch I ever met from Canada and I loved her.
When all the magnets fell off my refrigerator, I thought of Floss first.
IEMA reports stated that this would happen gradually. Not by fire or ice, but by warmth. The order of the universe would reveal itself incrementally. Once, on an over-booked New Year’s Eve, I had felt Floss’ cool hand touch me just above the elbow. Balanced on my heavy silver tray: two crystal tumblers of 1937 Glenfiddich and a single flute of Armand de Brignac Brute Rose. A ten thousand dollar round of drinks I was hustling—I had seven other tables waiting.
“Just so you know, you’ve only really got one customer tonight.” She pointed to my shivering liquors. Fluid as light through tourmaline, gold and pink. “Fuck the tourists, you know?”
I took her advice.
That night, I made half a year’s rent off the tip from Benjamin McCandless and the woman who we referred to as his girlfriend but only because we did not know what else to call her. Her name was Rosalba Bell. He called her Roz and she called him Gem. Without that tip, I wouldn’t have survived. I’d have been bumped to the edges of the city where the rent was lower and there was no air conditioning, ice, or easily attainable aspirin. Where people cut eyeholes in dampened sheets if they had to leave their apartments. A joke on death, almost: a cartoon of a ghost.
Floss educated me on catastrophe economy. For example, contrary to popular opinion, it isn’t the people with the most hustle or grit that will survive. It’s not that cosmic.
It’s the wealthy. They’ll survive.
Floss was from Montreal, raised in a restaurant that practiced traditional European service. She’d read books in French about how to pour wine in the preferred manner. Ethan, the only barkeep I ever met who talked even more than the servers, told me she had taken a test that took three years to get the little silver pin that proved she was a sommelier.
(I’m not going to go on about the art of service. You can still find books about that in the abandoned bookshops—Wharton, James, Howells. That’s the kind of information the old world put in ink. My point here is: they call it wait staff for a reason.)
The magnets fell off the fridge—finally, catastrophe all at once and not degree by degree—and I knew the waiting part of the end of the world was over.
Originally, Floss was the one indebted to me. She called it friendship, of course, but her kindness was always just the interest off some random thing that happened one night in the back alley.
When I first started at La Prairie, they made me help the busboys haul the trash to the dumpster. They were trying to get me to quit.
We always waited until around 4:00 AM to do it because that was the coolest hour of the day. Also, there was an ordinance against rotting trash in the business district due to the increasing urban wildlife. In London, the red fox invaded sandwich shops and skyscrapers alike. Pre-dawn always seemed darker than any other part of the night to me. It was darker—solar storms IEMA had not yet told us existed were beginning to dim the moon.
I never found out why Floss was out there in the black heat of the alley that morning. First, I noticed that her face was contorted, her eyeliner decanting itself down her cheeks in wormy black rivulets. She wasn’t making any noise. It was unnatural, but I didn’t judge. My dad had once told me that no survivor acts like any other survivor, so I supposed the same went for the moment of not yet being a survivor. The moment where one is just a victim.
He was a cop. We were Catholic, I guess, but spectacles, testicles, wallet, watch wasn’t my mnemonic for the Sign of the Cross. To me, it signified a series of defensive movements. Take out the eyes (spectacles), knee the groin (testicles), get identification if you can (wallet), and then look around for other attackers (watch). Don’t assume anyone is coming to help you. By the time I was ten, the police force still existed, but it no longer served the civilian population.
The person attacking Floss was swathed in strips of wet sheet, mummy-like. I couldn’t see the face under the gas mask. A survivalist. They’d lost their minds first. The progeny of people who had built bunkers and bought bug out bags back in the late nineties. Y2K-ers, fifty years late. I’d heard they were kidnapping women to begin a human farm. By then, even the worst rumors bored me. I hadn’t believed until I saw the zip tie handcuffs cinched around Floss’s wrists, the numbered tag attached. Hard plastic, the kind that hangs off a sow’s ear.
As I scrubbed the ocular fluid out from beneath my fingernails in the restaurant’s industrial sink, Floss hovered by my side and thanked me through her hyperventilation.
Ultimately, the only person those handcuffs bound her to was me.
We never told anyone about it. The only point would have been to explain why we were suddenly friends. Nobody cared, though, that the beautiful Quebecer sommelier had befriended lake trash.
After the attack, Floss said something to the manager that got me off all the hard jobs—unclogging drains, bussing dishes, marrying the butters.
Really, I should never have been working at La Prairie to begin with—I was a rube from Arcade, a small town in western New York. A place more Lake Erie than Lake Michigan, if that means anything to you. I had never even seen the Atlantic from so much as a Jersey Pier Ferris Wheel.
I couldn’t have identified an ocean note in a cocktail at gunpoint.
The job came to me as payment for a debt that was not even mine to collect.
Before Floss, I had no one in the world but my dad and so it was him who got me out of the west before the Great Lakes began to bubble and burp sulfur and other toxins that gnawed at the shore, an ulcer in the earth.
Everything came to the surface more quickly than we would have hoped.
Dad was re-assigned. His copper and chrome Arcadian badge replaced by a tiny tube inserted behind the flap of his left ear that, when scanned, identified him as City of Buffalo—International Emergency Management Agent. He left for work in riot gear, but I believed him when he said his new job was mostly hauling sandbags, bringing jugs of water to disaster sites, and enforcing the new zoning laws.
“Paper work,” he explained. “Mostly a lot of paper work.”
When I say that everything came to the surface quickly, I don’t just mean radium-rich gasses from the earth’s core. No, if I think of the defining characteristic of the middle of the century, it’s how transparent the precarious population became. Figuratively. (Literally, too—radium poisoning made skin glimmer with a crystalline finish. The affected appeared translucent. They say those people still glow in their graves.) Some people became criminal almost overnight, as if the capacity had been fully formed yet dormant. A bear in the back of a cave, a parasite in a pillowcase. I admit a lot of people became heroes, too. But since I’m technically classified as one of those because of that night in the alley with Floss, I can tell you a heroic act feels just like a violent one until it’s finished.
What the majority of the precarious did, though, was choose to get it over with. Pfizer engineered the first right to death prescription. They offered deep discounts to underserved populations.
The middleclass couldn’t understand we were over. In the end—even though it was obviously really, really the end—those people still insisted on carving out a future for their children. What I’m saying is: they didn’t want to give up their life insurance policies. The protective impulse of other people’s parents is what ended up allowing my dad to save me.
Death by Cop was illegal for everyone, but it was a lot more illegal for the rich. IEMA reverted to old European law for its old European citizens and so the wealthy were heavily fined if immediate family suicided by law enforcement. They said it was to offset the insurance payouts, which made no real sense.
The incentive to persuade the firing officer not to file the incident was extremely high. My dad’s price? The job for me at La Prairie. This probably seems like a shitty trade but you have to keep in mind that power was worth a lot more than money at that point. The provisional protection of an elite entity—an institution that catered to the sovereign—appreciated.
Money was like a weird kid’s joke—an Uno card slipped in a game of Go Fish. Out of context, just paper we passed back and forth until death.
Everyone at La Prairie was cashing in some favor. Everyone except Floss. She was simply good at what she did.
“Do you know what the most important part of my job is?”
She had found me slumped in the wine refrigerator, my back to a few hundred thousand dollars worth of cave temperature cab sauv. The foreign bottles didn’t mean anything to me except that my spine was cooling off and if my spine cooled off maybe I would stop shaking and maybe if I stopped shaking I would be able to go out and finish my shift without splattering bouillabaisse. A hand at Table Nine had made its way up my skirt, puncturing the web of my pantyhose and jabbing into me bluntly, like a duck’s beak or a traffic cone.
“Knowing the names of the wine.” I answered dully. I really did think this was the most important part of Floss’s job. I couldn’t even pronounce the words on the bottles she hocked, let alone tell a customer if they tasted austere or angular, fleshy or flamboyant, mineral or unctuous.
“Oui mais,” Floss often said one half of a sentence in her exaggerated French and the other half in her crass New York. “Mostly it’s telling the customer to go to hell.”
She hit the H in hell hard to counterbalance the erasure her natural accent threw over the letter. It made her sound like a Hollywood cowboy. Boots to the ground, but glittery.
“You’ve never told anyone to go to hell.” I wasn’t confident that was true. Floss got away with a lot.
She pursed her lips into a black kiss. Her lipstick was made from a reduction of blackberries, lard, and pectin. La Prairie’s saucier had been a cosmetic chemist, back when that was a demand regular people had. Floss said it was a work-related necessity; she needed it to hide red wine stains.
“Well,” she equivocated, “not so they knew I was doing it.”
“Then what’s the point?”
She studied me with a small frown, as if determining if this was a test even worth administering. “The point is that you get what you want.”
“What if what I want is to tell them to go fuck themselves.”
“Then what?” she prompted.
I shrugged. Then I would be fired, then I would die.
“Feelings go away, mon loup,” she tapped the center of my chest with two fingertips. Like I was a melon she was checking, to see if it was ripe. “But hungry is forever.”
I made to roll my eyes and leave, but Floss grabbed me suddenly, wrapping her long fingers around my jaw and forcing me to look her in the eye. I’d only seen people touch other people like that in movies. Mobster to wife, coach to athlete. The gesture was both violent and intimate. I could have gotten out of it if I wanted to, but I didn’t.
“You just have to stay alive until it’s time,” she had said. “Then we’ll tell them all to go to hell.”
Time for what, she didn’t say. I straightened my stockings and went back to my shift.
All night, Floss’s breath-laden double L ricocheted through my head like a ring of bad crystal, a knife tapped too hard to the edge of a champagne flute. The announcement of a celebration with no guest of honor, an event with no occasion.
Life was like that then: post-circumstance, all pomp.
We started our shifts with a round of Who Cares while we folded linen napkins into abstract origami. We weren’t allowed to make roses or swans because nobody wanted to remember those didn’t exist anymore. Instead, we made cubes or pokey virus shapes.
The rules of Who Cares were simple. One of us said a sentence that began with, “Guess who’s at Table One…” and then we described the customer. The other one then paused, leaned forward, and responded, theatrically, “Who cares!”
I drew out the O, Floss dug in on the A. The game began as a mockery of Ethan, who started conversations with remarks like, “Guess who I just made a G & T for?” He would answer himself in such a way that each word was exclamative: “Prince! Andrew! Of! Yugoslavia!”
I thought this was a form of perverted nostalgia—Ethan’s way to act like the old world still mattered—but Floss told me gossip was actually a currency when used correctly.
Our manager despised Who Cares. He, like Ethan, acknowledged what Floss and me did not: La Prairie wasn’t a restaurant, it was a living museum. Our whole reason d’etre, as Ethan would say, was to preserve the past. At the end of the world, people had to stop fetishizing the future. Those left with enough cash to tend their obsessions insisted, instead, on ancient comforts: hierarchy, religion, alcohol.
But our manager hadn’t been at the restaurant for a while. A week prior, I had watched him climb the ladder in the wine cave, take a dusted bottle from the highest shelf, and walk out the front door without wrapping himself in one of the lead-lined blankets we had all taken to wearing on the streets.
In his absence, Floss was de facto boss.
Under Floss’s command, La Prairie’s atmosphere shifted. Chef de-annexed the crystal punch bowl and placed it next to the wait station. Instead of pouring customer’s undrunk liquor down the drain, we pooled it in the bowl and called it House Red. A discarded wine key was used to scratch our initials into the bottoms of black coffee cups so we could drink throughout our shifts. Floss hired what she called new blood—a couple of refugees fleeing the Los Angeles wildfires. Pretty blond girls who giggled when they were happy and giggled when they were afraid. We stopped accepting reservations from anyone not in the old manager’s Black Book and Floss instructed us all to emote more, to amplify our joy even when there was none.
“Smile,” she said, scowling at the servers. Unnaturally, they did.
Even the sound of the restaurant changed. Before it was muffled, the thick white tablecloths like snow smothering the patter of footsteps. After, the ting of crystal tapping crystal, of hard-soled shoes hitting the cool kitchen tile, made me think of spring thaw back in Arcade, of lying in my bed and listening to the snow on the eves melt erratically. Asymmetrical rain.
Where I came from, it had been a long time since even the water was quite right. There was a legend about the lake—about a powerful tide that could push against the current. A rich, mysterious influence possessing everything in its path.
Stronger than the moon, than the flow of nature.
The other big change after Floss took over was that I worked a lot less. She put the L.A. girls on my usual tables and I got put in the stockroom, where I mostly polished dinnerware, stuffed menus, and played Guess Who with Floss.
Under Floss’ watch, I folded the napkins into flop-eared bunnies. Halloween bats. Stars.
I’d gotten entitled to this routine, so I was irritated when Floss asked me to wait on Table Ten. I guess it had been about two months without a manager by that point.
Wordlessly, me and Floss had reached an agreement: she would protect me from whatever had happened that night at Table Nine and we would be square for the night I protected her in the alley. If Floss felt like she was breaking her end of the deal, she didn’t show it.
Regret, I think, is the emotion Floss was least addicted to.
Only Rosalba Bell sat at Table Ten that night.
She looked like a kindergarten teacher, but with more expensive skin. A haircut we would have compared to a porcupine back in Arcade and no lipstick at all. At the sight of her, my body relaxed enough for my hands to tremble and I felt the bloody rush to the brain that comes from inhaling after you’ve held your breath for too long. I’d been scared, I guess, to go back into the dining room.
When I dropped my pen trying to take her order, Rosalba placed two fingertips to my hand. They were warm and weighted with diamonds.
“As in Graham! Bell!” Ethan had breathed into my ear the first night I saw Rosalba. I’d rolled my eyes at him, but now the information clicked differently. A last puzzle piece—a jagged eye or a window. An answer as opposed to an edge.
“Sit and chat,” Rosalba commanded. She had the oddest accent. Hushed and Scottish but also trilled and vibrational. Brazilian, maybe.
I’d never sat at a customer’s table before. I placed my hands between my knees and squeezed. Hard.
Rosalba looked at me for a few moments. Gazed, I thought. This is what it’s like to be gazed at. She was as relaxed as if I were an inanimate object.
“Tell me about yourself,” she said finally. “You’re from the Dead Lakes?”
I flinched. The media had introduced this new name for the Great Lakes a few months ago, after the waters began to hiss like a teakettle and steam away.
“Arcade,” I admitted.
“Beautiful country. I went to camp in that area once when I was about your age, I think. How old are you? Sixteen?”
“Until November,” I amended absurdly. It was only March.
“Yes!” I missed this the most. Astrolatry had disappeared with the stars.
“I could tell.” She waved one hand in the space between our eyes. “Sex and death, right?"
“And the underworld.” I wanted, suddenly, to impress her.
“And the underworld,” she repeated. “Is that how you got here?”
She gestured around the fussy little room, the table topped with antique lace and patterned china. On one wall, a cuckoo clock hung. We both laughed absurdly.
Maybe I was a little drunk on House Red, but for some reason I found myself talking. All about my dad and the deal. Floss and the alley.
Or, maybe I was lonely.
She nodded conspiratorially, at one point ordering us a bottle of Lambic. It tasted like sour candy worms, movies in the old world.
“You know,” she said when I was done, “I was on my own when I was a girl, too. Before I met Gem, I was completely alone in the world.”
“You were?” My stomach was tight with carbonation and sugar.
“After my father died, I was sent away to a school where I didn’t know anyone. I lived there for two years. Until I was old enough to leave.”
“Did you like it?”
“Do you like it here?”
Again, we laughed and then I was telling her what I had not yet told even Floss. About how around Christmas I had gotten a package with my father’s badges and a check for the full amount of his life insurance policy. I kept the check in my wallet to look at my dad’s signature.
“Nobody knows but you,” I finished.
“Scorpios love secrets, don’t they?”
I’m not sure what I expected her to say. That she would adopt me? That she was so overcome with my plight that she would take me under her taupe-clad wing?
A Lambic headache was beginning to jab at my eyes. I was trying to stand, to leave, when Rosalba pulled out her phone and asked, “Can you keep another secret?”
The tiny screen projected a cosmos. A zodiacal wash of color.
“Some of the stars are still here.” She swiped through screens and screens of sky. Gem, she explained, had a telescope atop a skyscraper affixed with a beam so powerful it could see through the swathe of ash surrounding the world.
When the invitation to visit was extended to me later that week, I wasn’t surprised. Before I left that night she had touched my hand again, “Please—call me Roz.”
The restaurant got rowdier after the news of what we all knew already. Gem McCandless pulled Floss aside and made it official one Thursday night: the manager was dead.
There’s this idea that the end of the world is a sort of horrific party, a morbid bacchanal. But that isn’t the case. No one really knows when to start acting like the end is here. By the time you know—really know—there’s no time to revel. It's not a tide turning, but a tide collapsing. The closest I ever got to my imagination of an ending was in the final weeks I worked at La Prairie, awash in the sea change of a sea I’d never known.
The night I was scheduled to see the sky was the same night that Floss got so drunk everybody believed it when Ethan started the rumor that she had taken a swig from Mr. McCandless’ martini. The gossip spread. By the time the first round of aperitifs came out of the kitchen, Chef had already spiked the House Red with an entire bottle of Don Julio. Everyone got wasted.
Only I stayed sober. Roz was coming to take me to the telescope soon.
Floss was coming, too. She didn't give a shit about astrology or astronomy, so I don’t know why she was invited. There was just a sort of implicit knowledge that she was. I was killing time until the night ended by arranging the magnets used to hold down orders into the crooked hook of Scorpius when Floss appeared at my elbow.
“Is it time to go?” I didn’t try to keep the irritation out of my voice. I wanted Floss to know she was the hold up.
“Almost.” Her breath smelled nostalgic. A breeze from a time when people thought they could cover up, could layer mint over alcohol and call it okay.
“Who cares?” A giggle that ended in a shrieking hiccup flopped from her mouth.
“What is wrong with you?” I finally turned to face her. “You’re going to see the stars for probably the actual last time tonight and you’re drunk? Don’t you care about anything?”
I felt bad for saying it the instant I saw what Floss was holding. In one hand, the repurposed caviar pot she kept her kitchen lipstick in and in the other, my black coffee cup.
She held the cup out to me, almost shyly, “Margarita? It’s real lime juice.”
We had gotten a contraband shipment of citrus from one of Floss’ sources earlier in the day. When I extended my hand to take the cup, we both looked too long at my cracked cuticles, gummy with blood. Scurvy.
“Here,” she held the lipstick out. “Put some on before we go. It’s an occasion.”
At McCandless’ loft it was difficult to track what everyone was laughing about.
Mostly, I was anxious about when to take my shoes off. Back in Arcade, the rudest thing you could do was track lake mud into someone’s home. But there was no good time to unlace. Not in the lobby where a woman punched a gold keypad with an oxblood fingernail to permit us entry, not during the ninety flights up in the first elevator or in the two flights up in the second elevator, not in the glittering foyer the doors astonishingly opened directly into.
“Where did my shoes go?” I heard myself ask at some point. My feet were naked in someone’s lap. No one answered me, but everyone was delighted by the question.
There was a bitter taste in my mouth: blackberry, bile, citrus. A mix of lime and lipstick.
“Floss?” There seemed to be so many people there. Roz and Gem, but also a uniformed woman who kept refilling glasses and a bartender and, at one point, a man in chef’s whites who appeared with a small dish of something I wasn’t offered. People kept cracking whatever was in it open like tiny skulls. Pistachios, possibly. “Where’s Floss?”
Roz was staring at me intently, both her cool hands wrapped around my clenched fists. I stared at her thin fingers chunked with gems and thought you’re so shiny. Like a giant fish. A shimmer.
She had been speaking very earnestly for some time. Something about how I reminded her of herself, something about Gem, something about his connections to Buffalo-IEMA. She was perched on the edge of a bed and I was sunk low in the deep pillows. Right before my father sent me to the city, something had disrupted the gravitational fields enough that the tides in the lake really did disrupt. He had forbidden me from swimming.
“There’s no warning,” he’d explained. “The water looks normal and then you just go right under.”
Roz, I realized, was saying something about a favor.
“What favor?” I tried to ask, but I couldn’t control how long the noises were coming out of my mouth nor could I manipulate the curve of my tongue or the shape of my lips.
I tried again. This time my voice was shrill, panicked. I meant to ask about the favor, but instead my mouth said, “Floss? Where’s Floss?”
And there she was, sitting right where Roz had been.
My left cheek stung. I had the feeling that everyone was angry with me.
“You had too much to drink,” Floss said. “Have this.”
The tepid coffee tasted of earth and acid. I pushed myself into a sitting position. A weird draft brushed over my stomach and breasts and I realized my clothes were gone.
Perhaps I vomited on myself. Perhaps an incident had occurred and my clothes were contaminated by radium.
Perhaps, I thought, we were going swimming.
Of the many thoughts I had, the truth wasn’t one of them.
“It isn’t a big deal.” Floss was telling a story about the L.A. girls. How Gem had gotten them out of the fires. “He helps lots of girls.”
I thought of Roz telling me she was completely alone in the world and then I had to know.
“Did he help you?”
Floss paused. I could tell from the sag of her lips that she was thinking of eliminating friction, of telling me what I wanted to hear.
In Arcade, years before the lake even started steaming, a group of boys had taken a boat out to the center of the water to see if they could touch the lowest point. The surface was dark, impossible to know just how far down you’d go. If I had not seen for myself, I wouldn’t have believed that one of them had actually done it.
I don’t remember that boy’s name, just that he showed us all the hand that touched the lake floor: scarred over, burnt so bad if he pressed his skin into ink, all he could make was a wet, black blotch. Printless.
Some Arcadians insisted on a lake monster rumor, vowing he’d encountered an aquatic cryptic. Others said it was the moon’s fault; that a boiling hot undercurrent had been drawn in by some strange gravity. A myth, either way.
Even with so much evidence, we wouldn’t imagine. Not if there was any better story we could spin, any possible misdirection.
“The water was so warm,” he had told us, his eyes drifting towards the beach. “Warm all the way down. It was a relief, to touch bottom.”