The Castle, Or, That’s One Way To Make A Living
By Tara Marsden
This story is part of a special series of content produced in conjunction with the live reading series Write Club in San Francisco. Writers are given opposing ideas to write on — in our case, different sets of homonyms (like “Urn” and “Earn”) — and seven minutes to prove their wordsmithing glory (tagline: “literature as bloodsport”). All prize money goes to charity.
Special thanks to curator and host Maggie Tokuda-Hall, who created an entire evening of female writers. Together we raised $1,000 (The Est. matched door donations) to be distributed among Homeless to Higher Ed and Girls, Inc.
Once upon a time, there lived a girl who worked in a castle. The castle had large, looming turrets made of stucco, each tower topped with fading yellow, hard, plastic “flags,” designed so as to create the illusion of constant rustling in the non-existent valley wind. You’ve probably seen this castle, though you may not remember it; it is visible from I-80 East. You would’ve seen it through your passenger side window on your last trip to Lake Tahoe, though perhaps it made little impression on you, unique though it may beside the In-N-Out Burgers and BMW dealerships which also dot the edge of that stretch of freeway.
On the grounds of this castle, there was a miniature golf course, a go-cart raceway, and enormous, glistening water slides bearing intimidating names like “The Stealth” and “Storm Rider.” The surrounding kingdom was filled each summer from May through September with the shrill giggles and screams of teenagers flirting as they tried to untie each other’s bikini strings and swimming trunks while swirling endlessly atop turquoise inner tubes in the moat that encircled the castle.
Mariah could hear those screams from the dank inner chambers of the castle, which retained the inimitable smell of Subway sandwiches, a smell that seemed to rise from the molding geometric patterned carpet, mingled with the burning scent of chlorine that forever lingered within the unventilated walls. The castle housed an arcade and lazer tag courses. Guests in varying states of undress accosted Mariah at the prize counter, their paper tickets hard-won at Skee-Ball clutched in their wet palms, as they demanded to be rewarded with cheap plastic yo-yos and oversized teddy bears.
She envied them their skimpy swimsuits, appropriate for the triple degree heat. As a castle employee, she donned a uniform of baggy khaki pants and a men’s forest green polo shirt which robbed her light frame of its youthful curves and rendered her sexless and benign. She had never met the owners of the castle, but she’d heard they were Mormons, and she imagined they must have chosen this uniform themselves with a sense of righteous glee.
Mariah reported to a short man unironically named Buddy. Buddy was 24 years old and therefore the oldest employee of the castle by several years, a fact which inexplicably filled him with a drunken sense of cosmic power rather than appropriate shame. From her first week, Buddy seemed to single out Mariah for particularly humiliating tasks, each day finding new and increasingly creative ways to make her life in the castle torturous.
During one of her very first shifts, the castle’s ladies room had overflowed, flooding the grout-ridden tile floors with water spilling continuously from a clogged toilet. The castle janitor had called in sick that day, and Buddy had insisted that Mariah ought to be the one to deal with it. After all, he’d said with feigned regret which belied his internal pleasure, “it’s the women’s restroom, and I’m a man.”
Mariah prepared herself for combat. Her armor: moist rubber gloves. Her weapon: an old plunger. She entered the ladies room, approaching her monstrous enemy with trepidation beating in her heart as she clutched the plunger tightly in her fist. Her dread grew heavy when she saw that the toilet water was an alarming hue of pale pink, but she dutifully stuck the plunger in and began to cautiously pump like a pilgrim churning butter.
The battle was brief; she popped the clog and suddenly found herself gagging as the bowl filled with a tangled collection of used tampons. As they wriggled in the rippling water, they appeared almost alive, and she was reminded of a Wikipedia article on “rat kings” she’d recently stumbled upon. A rat king, she’d learned, was a mythical beast of the sewer, made of a collection of gnarled rats whose tails had intertwined until they formed a massive, writhing ball. Heroically, Mariah didn’t vomit. When she returned to Buddy’s office to explain the source of the flooding, his mouth turned in a strangely satisfied grimace. Girls! he said, in a way that made the word feel like a slur.
Another day, Buddy asked Mariah to pick used cigarette butts out of the wood chips that lined the mini-golf course. She frowned, but said nothing, having quickly learned the futility of protest. Out she went into the 108 degree heat of the Central Valley sun, the thick collar of her polo shirt quickly sticking to her neck as she bent over, at times even crawling on her knees to reach into sidewalk crevices. She brushed wood chips out of her way and acquired a red constellation of painful splinters across her palms as she slid each new piece of her collection into a plastic bag in her pants pocket. Smoking wasn’t actually allowed on castle grounds, so Mariah couldn’t guess where the butts had come from.
She imagined a small army of Oompa Loompa-like goblins arising in the night, commanded by Buddy to smoke packs and packs, ten at a time stuffed in their little orange mouths, while he laughed maniacally above them, pointing to particularly obscure hiding places. In her mind, Buddy was even shorter, but more sinister, an imp-like amalgam of Napoleon and Draco Malfoy, his eyes twinkling with hellfire as he planned this special treasure hunt.
Inside again, there was no time to wash her hands before returning to her post at the cash register. Her stomach dropped with panic when she realized it was payday. Every other Friday, all employees collected their checks from the locked box at the register. This was the only time the waterpark lifeguards deigned to leave their Olympian posts to enter the depressing cave of the arcade. While the castle employees were serfs, the lifeguards were more than royalty — they were demigods. One particular water goddess, a girl with swinging braids and narrow hips, the sight of whom always made Mariah’s head swim, was the first that day to collect her paycheck at the counter.
Mariah’s hand shook, smelling of old tobacco, as she handed over the paycheck. She smiled at the lifeguard, feeling the sweat pool in the creases along her nose. The lifeguard didn’t smile back as she turned to go. Mariah felt iron bands tighten around her heart, as if to lock away the rising ache. Buddy looked up from across the arcade and smirked.
One night, when the castle grounds had emptied, Mariah returned, hopping the fence closest to the mini-golf course. She still carried in her pocket the used cigarettes she’d collected. Humming quietly, she approached the course’s ninth hole, a classic windmill and sat down at its foot in the stiff, scratching AstroTurf. She pulled the stumps of cigarette from her pocket, as well as a couple neon-colored golf balls, and Buddy’s staff photo, surreptitiously stolen from the break room’s Employee of the Month display. She began to carefully arrange the cigarettes and golf balls into the shape of a Pentagram. She wasn’t entirely sure what it actually stood for, but it was the sort of thing they did on Buffy, so she was confident it meant something. Buddy’s photo rested at its center.
Mariah pulled a fresh cigarette from the cradle of her ear and lit it, taking in a harsh drag. She then used it to light the end of each stump before burning Buddy’s eyes out. She grinned at the gaping black holes above his smug smile. She basked in the ashy glow of the star, took another long drag from the cigarette, and found herself believing, at least in that moment, that the sheer force of her will could make magic.
Lead Image: Flickr / Christy Hardin Smith