People come into a costume store to rent costumes for Halloween all the time. But how frightening would it be if you went into a store to rent a person. How frightening would it be if you were a rented person. It could possibly be much more frightening than this little story here.
How To Rent People
Carla’s Spanish accent is heard clear across the vintage clothing and costume store, adding to the nostalgia the way only a language rooted in death can add to nostalgia. To hear it makes one remember the sound of cicadas on a dying summer day, the last weekend before school starts. The hum of her voice makes me sad.
“Yes, our clown costumes come with people in them,” she tells a potential client who is looking through the red, blue, yellow, purple, spotted, striped, balloon-sized clown suits. “You tell me who you want in the suit, when you want, and where. Then you sign the waiver saying you do nothing to my costumer. I’ll need the rental fee up front as well as a safety deposit, which covers medical, dental, and mental fees that may occur in case you do something to my costumer while you’re renting them. You get deposit back if my costumer comes back the way they left,” Carla hums.
Carla, her long dark hair, the red flowers in those waves, and her Spanish accent are all owners of a unique niche outfit that outfits people with people. It’s not an escort service. It’s s a legitimate rental agency for people who need people. One of her ads for the place reads, “Need a best friend to paint your toes and tell your secrets to? Need someone to fill in as your girlfriend during your High School reunion because you really don’t have one but you’ve already told all your pals that you do have one?” Sound ridiculous? Well it’s not ridiculous to the more than 2,000 loyal clients who rent monthly. That’s not to mention the rental booms at Valentines, Halloween, Christmas, Family Gatherings, Reunions, and Birthdays every month thanks to people who find themselves needing someone, anyone.
Carla trains her “costumers,” people dressed up in costumes specific to a clients design, to be anyone – and to be them well. So well that some costumers forget who they were coming into this business and believe they are their pretend selves. So well that clients keep coming back for the same rental, year after year, week after week, and sometimes only hours after their last rental.
Today is Wednesday. There’s a reporter in here doing another story on how Carla’s has changed so many lives in this economy. Fuck this economy. It costs a pretty penny to rent any one of the costumers for just half a day. The deposit alone could buy a small planet or put a second child through one year of college. The guy who’s writing the story this year gives me the heebs. His hair is slicked back with some products that makes it look still wet from a shower. Maybe he did just get out of the shower. Doubtful since his face shines like a copper penny and he smells like week old yogurt left out of the fridge.
“We don’t judge,” say’s a girl called “Carlita” interviewing for the article. “We know people need people. And real people are hard to come by,” she says. No real names are given out at Carla’s in order to protect the costumer’s identity and to keep home and work separate. I’m Fox. Hold your gags, please. I’ve been a costumer for more than twelve years. The longest a costumer is supposed to stay in the business is five.
“Being real in this economy on this world is a commodity that some people can’t afford,” I hear Carlita say. “We try to help. I mean, it sounds fake cause we’re all wearing costumes and have fake names and all. But, you know, we’re doing this, being your friend, your basketball coach, your high school reunion girlfriend, because we really like it. We really like helping, we like being that person you need.” I imagine Carlita flipping her hair over her shoulder. And giggling. And maybe lightly touching the reporter’s shoulder then shying away. I hear the reporter clear his throat and stutter another question.
Carlita has been a rented costumer for almost five years now. I think she has about two months left before she retires. Maybe that’s why she’s being interviewed – she’s an old codger in the businesses but still has that “Oh my gosh, I totally have helped this world” attitude. That’s why I was interviewed years ago. “They had to quit. I’m getting to that point now,” she tells the reporter. “It’s hard work and I’m getting tired.”
I’m sitting at the back of the shop looking out over all the costumes, feathers, camping gear, shoes, accessories, wigs. It’s an explosion of color and gaud. It’s the make-up for any human being, real or imaginary, in any decade, on any planet. I see Carla taking down a particularly old hat to show another potential client. The hat is a faded green top hat that curves inwards at the top making an hourglass shape on a person’s head. People who rent this hat want leprechauns to be wearing it. I see Carlita and the reporter sitting in one of the dressing rooms. I see Carlita’s smile shrink on her tiny face and then I catch her eye. She turns back to face the reporter and shifts back and forth in her seat. Probably the reporter has just asked about me. They always do. I’ve been here the longest out of any costumer in Carla’s glorious 65-year reign as dream maker. “How has someone done it for so long,” “How many people has she been,” “What is her retirement plan like,” they all want to know.
What they don’t know is that it’s Wednesday and tomorrow I won’t be back. What they don’t know is how many lies I’ve become and told and been fed for the pension and life insurance and dental that covers not only me, my spouse, and children but my great-great-grandchildren. What they don’t know is Mr. Hahn and that I’ve seen him as his granddaughter, his last living relative, every Wednesday for the past seven years. His real granddaughter, who was his last living relative, has been dead for twelve. That’s something you do as a rented costumer. You research and get to know the person who rents you. Not only for safety reasons but also for that damn good performance that gets that tip to last you the weekend. Carla trains her costumers well.
I stand up from my stool and straighten my kakhi skirt. I make sure the buttons on my shirtsleeves are fastened and my grey-purple sweater, moth eaten at the edges, is in place. I push up my glasses and walk out the front door; the doorbell jingle is the only acknowledgment of my exodus.
The leaves on the walk to the park bench where we meet are firecrackers in the trees and rice krispies under my feet. It’s still damp from the rain a few nights ago and the smell of wet decaying earth is like home. To smell it one remembers nature walks with their dad through the forest surrounding his parents farm. I hear the crunch, snap, shuffle and my throat burns. Mr. Hahn sits with a book open in his lap, his gaze somewhere in the distance. He looks away from that other world toward my direction and in a second recognizes my lying face. A smile, like the sun on top of ripples in a calm ocean, spreads across his face.
“Rachel,” he calls to me, his granddaughter.
“How’s my favorite graddaughter,” his words quiver with age.
“I’m your only granddaughter,” I laugh and his rough, sun spotted hand gently pats the top of my pale one. The color and temperature of it is familiar of someone else and I think, “Granpa.”
“I know, I know, but you’re still my favorite. How was your class yesterday? Tell me what you learned. I brought you Shakespeare today,” he said and began again in a steadier verse, “How bitter it is to look at happiness through another man’s eyes.”
“Wait, you memorized Shakespeare? My grandpa memorized Shakespeare.”
“Of course. It’s one of my favorites.” He hands me the book and its fraying blue cover. “So, what was the highlight of your class yesterday. Tell me all about it.” His voice sounds like an old sailboat rocking back and fourth in the tide. To hear it makes one remember that morning when, over coffee on the starboard side of a 27-foot sailboat named Quicksilver, your grandfather tells you about life, death, and how he met your grandmother. The creak of his voice makes me falter and almost forget what I came here to say.
“Mr. Hahn I can’t do this any more. I’m quitting. I wont be back next week.”
“Quitting what, my dear? The class? Was yesterday so bad?”
“No, Mr. Hahn. I’m not in a class. I’m not coming back to see you.”
“Rachel, what are you talking about we’ve made arrangements for you to come see me every week.”
“I… I’m not Rachel, Mr. Hahn. You know this. You’ve known this. Why do you come to the rental agency every week to rent me if you don’t know this?” I feel a sick cold, dead thing like a raw oyster plop up in my chest. I feel the words coming out of my mouth, but the fog in Mr. Hahn’s eyes muffles the sound. I hear Carla’s voice coming from Mr. Hahn’s mouth.
“When applying for a rental position you must fill out all needed paper work, be registered for self defense classes, have notarized a detailed list of personal costumes, show three separate persona references, have copies of your mechanical and culinary test scores, and release all medical records to the store. You’re my best girl, Rachel. Why are you leaving me? I don’t have any one else.” Mr. Hahn’s face doesn’t fit the Spanish hum in my head. His hand grips mine. I can’t look at this train wreck. I have to clean my khaki skirt with my fingernails.
“Mr. Hahn you can get another girl to rent as your granddaughter.”
“Rent my granddaughter? What the hell are you going on about, Rachel. You’re my granddaughter,” and when I look in his pale blue eyes I seem him, my grandfather, Thomas Hart, and I am his granddaughter. I stand up and place Shakespeare on the bench.
Trudging home I take off the sweater and unbutton the sleeves and collar of my shirt. There is no two-week notice. There is no signing anything at the end. Carla is all business. She doesn’t talk much about what we’ll do with our lives when we leave her or about the past costumers who left her or how she first got started or even where she or her family came from exactly. Carla only explains prices, gets security deposits, and makes certain her costumers have everything they need to be safe, happy, and completely outfitted for their gigs and for the rest of their lives when they do, finally, after twelve years, decide to leave.
One thing she does tell us is our rental name, leaving the real us to anonymity. No one will know our birth name at the store before or after we are costumers. This is so we can easily be whoever you want us to be, whenever you want us to be. Why you want us to be you’re high school sweet heart, your brother in law, you’re neighborhood dog walker, or your dead granddaughter, we’ll never know. But why we allow ourselves to be those people, you’ll never know. The prices of costumers range depending on time period of event, costumes, and a character’s vintage-ness. “Call the store for prices and to schedule your rental or visit Carla’s Costumers in person.”
My apartment is marked by a wooden door, unrecognizable from the others lined next to it, but I’ve paid for mine till the end of this decade. I stand with my sweater in one hand and my shirt held together by one button, my key poised at the lock. I open apartment number 18C and the wooden door thudding closed behind me makes one remember the sound the front door made when your mother came home from work. The door shutting, your footsteps thumping quickly toward an all-enveloping smell of clean linen, lavender, and warm, that lets you know someone has found you.
In that shutting I feel myself once more.