There was a faint hint of cat piss on the veranda, Chester noted while awaiting his host. He wore an ill-fitting suit from the JC Penny’s at the center of a near-forgotten strip mall and clutched an overstuffed manila folder. In typical fashion, he didn’t read the evening’s plentiful instructions. He’d instead removed the blue ribbon from its myriad contents and pinned it to his lapel moments before, in the car.
A stout elderly man in a butler’s uniform answered the door on the third ring. The butler’s bushy black eyebrows, which mismatched his unkempt white hair, shot up. His hands remained firmly behind his back, right hand clutching left wrist. “You’re… late,” he croaked.
“I hope it’s alright… I meant to show up earlier, but got lost driving this deep into the woods,” Chester admitted. He gave a cursory glance around the property, mostly obscured by the thick shadows of a late October’s evening.
As if from nowhere, the butler produced a clipboard containing the guest list, and drew an imaginary line from the top to bottom, pen never touching the paper. Nose upturned, he glimpsed at Chester’s blue ribbon and asked, “Rockland County, correct?”
Chester nodded, a little too eagerly. He regretted not reading the email confirmation more closely, as he could no longer remember the alias he was instructed to use when he arrived. “Yes, that’s me.”
The butler licked his fingertip before turning the page on his clipboard, “Name?”
“Chester Florida,” he said, unconfidently. The on-the-spot replacement came from a road sign on the drive up. Chester and Florida were both small towns in Orange County, but he felt like together they sounded like a secret. Like the kind of name he could hide behind if he needed to.
The butler scoffed, “I’m sorry, you’re mistaken. There’s no room for a Mr. Florida at our table,” and went to close the door as slowly as he’d come to open it.
Chester wedged the exaggerated toe of his discount Payless shoe between the door and jamb and slid a briefcase through the crack. Chester spoke sternly, “No, you’re mistaken. It’s all there.”
The butler reopened the door a crack and inspected the contents of the briefcase: eight thousand dollars in Monopoly money, an autographed 50’s pulp scifi novel, and a rusty garden trowel. Satisfied, but still unimpressed, he stepped aside for Chester to enter and disappeared into the abyss.
If the smell of cat piss was faint on the veranda, it was just shy of all-encompassing in the mansion. The carpeting was covered in a thick sheath of grey sheddings, left behind by what must have been an army of house cats. It seemed that maybe his host’s feline compatriots held more dominion over this place than she did. His confidence in her briefly waned, before he chanced upon the full glory of the dining room.
“The optimal way to transform your mundane identity into something approaching memorable, neigh, unforgettable, is to abandon everything you know and begin anew,” finished Thelonia Butterman. Chester was taken aback by her beauty and entranced by the gaudy amulet on her chest.
She stood next to a maroon overstuffed chair with ornately carved arms and two fat cats perched atop it. Behind her was a massive nude portrait of herself, spread eagled on a bearskin rug in front of a lit fireplace. Chester felt pride in his ability to keep from staring at it, ignoring the fact that he salivated over the flesh and blood specimen before him.
An expansive feast stretched from one end of the table to the other. Carafes of wine flanked mounds of fruit, cheeses, and silver platters of vegetarian delicacies. On either side were two sets of nine chairs, all occupied save for one on the other side of the room. The guests turned to him, as if synchronized, and made no move to mask their disgust at his interruption.
“You must be Rudolf. How nice of you to join us,” Thelonia mused while glaring at Chester. He couldn’t tell if she was angry he was late or relieved he’d finally arrived. “Please, sit down Mr. Bennington. Eat.”
“Actually, Ma’am, my name’ll be Chester Florida,” he replied, resistant to both Ms. Butterman’s written instructions and undeniable authority over this place.
Thelonia tilted her head and squinted, refusing to acknowledge his correction and audibly clapping twice. As if on cue, the butler reappeared and prodded Chester toward the vacant seat. He did his best to acknowledge his fellow Thelonia acolytes, but they sat poised and attentive. His neighbor, a man in his seventies adorned with a mustard tuxedo and a purple ribbon on the lapel, took notes furiously in a small notebook between bites of sweet potato gnocchi.
“Now, where on earth was I?”
A woman in a floral petticoat and a surgical facemask piped up, “You’d mentioned suspending all pretense to manufacture a both visibly and audibly convincing new personage, with which we’d be able to take back the world from the bland corporate sheeple we ourselves refuse to become.”
Thelonia nodded, smiling from ear to ear, “That is absolutely, 100% right my dear. From there we’re able to extrapolate that the next step in your transformation…”
Chester shoved the unread folder underneath his chair and pulled a tape recorder out of his jacket pocket. He quietly pressed record and took a bite of the meatless lasagna in front of him. Mustard suit reached over and snatched the device away, indignantly removing the tape.
“No recording equipment, you dolt,” the old coot whispered, shushing him with a gnarled forefinger, “just listen.”
Defeated, Chester returned his attention to Thelonia and tried his best to catch up to what he’d already missed.
After all nine courses of dinner were served, along with a brief dessert cocktail, Chester and the other guests were shepherded into one of the mansion’s many studies. Beautiful old tapestries adorned the walls, flanked by shelves full to bursting with dusty leather bound tomes. Somehow the majority of the cat piss and sheddings had escaped this room, despite the fact that at least two followed Thelonia around at all times.
The guests, shuffled now, stood in two parallel lines, fifteen feet apart. Chester stood in the middle, across from a younger woman with a buzzcut and a sleeveless jean vest covered in tiny metal spikes. Thelonia and the butler walked down each row, handing out briefcases in turn.
“To truly shed the personas you’ve already developed and start anew, you must strip away any preconceived notions of who one’s new self should be,” Thelonia said, handing Chester a briefcase much rattier than the one he’d brought with him.
Chester and the woman with the buzzcut caught eyes. She flashed him a brief half smile before returning her attention to Thelonia. A fire was lit in the hearth, increasing the temperature in the room to a hair shy of uncomfortable, the way their host seemingly preferred it.
“I’d like each pair of you, in front of the group, to take seven steps forward and stand back to back,” said Thelonia, “At such a time, you may peruse the contents of your partner’s package and announce, in five words to all of us, that which’ll encompass the crux of their new identity.”
Chester’s palms clammed up when he realized he’d be relinquishing control over his own future, and into the hands of a pretty but forgettable punk girl he’d never met. Though he supposed that was by design. The first pair took one look at the cases given to them and had no issue with the exercise.
“Margaret Thayer, the first last earth mother,” proclaimed the old man in the mustard suit.
“Patrick Kelleher, an educated uncle’s forgotten soothsayer,” quipped the woman in the floral petticoat.
On down the line, each pair went, never glancing for more than a second or two at the assortment of household objects collected before them. Finally it was Chester and the girl’s turn.
She gave him a knowing wink right before they stood back to back. He could feel her heartbeat as he opened her case, and read her new assumed name from a piece of masking tape. Collected inside was the empty slipcover for an old motown vinyl, a roll of quarters, and a smelly cracked wisdom tooth.
“Belinda Saxley, a modern...” Chester paused, unsure of himself, “glance of malcontent?”
Her shoulders slumped, and Chester went to try again, but Thelonia brazenly cut him off with the wave of a hand. Crushed by their disappointment, he awaited their assessment of his newest truest self.
Belinda cleared her throat and stood up straight, “Chester Florida, the buffoon’s failed hat trick.”
Thelonia smiled and continued on as Chester and Belinda returned to their places across from one another. He couldn’t understand the glare she gave him, or what those five words were supposed to do to kickstart his metamorphosis, but for the first time in awhile he defiantly felt that he’d done something right.