Below is an excerpt from a larger work in progress by fiction writer Abbey Mei Otis along with a video of her current reading at Malvern Books this past October.
Rich People (excerpt)
Nobody stopped me. I smiled at the doormen like we were old friends. I followed the other guests and walked like I knew exactly where I had to be. The hallways were dim and reddish. Sometimes I made wrong turns and had to double back; even then I walked surely. As I got farther into the house there were more people about, and a deep humming pervaded the air. The dress code was long gowns and masks. Some people had hooks embedded in their necks and shoulders that trailed long graceful streamers. The flickering sconces made everybody look like stained glass saints.
Finally I reached the ballroom. Usually such places are a disappointment, but here the floor was a rink of frozen gold. The ceiling soared overhead, obscured by vapor and heat and candle smoke. Everywhere people stood and spoke to each other, their mouths bright clots of blood that slid around their faces. I moved through the crowd and caught flecks of conversation like insects in my hair.
“She’s really opening herself up to the opportunity of this country,” someone said.
“The submarine is just not a joy I want to live without any longer.”
So this was the hum. It was as though they were putting on a show for me, though they were not. Even their most unguarded selves were a sumptuous performance. I felt awe.
I had never been around rich people before. I always assumed my odor would be lurid to them, and they would try to toss trash down my shirt. Instead these people seemed to want to conceal something from me. Their eyes flickered to mine and then curled away, as though shielding a precious object. Everywhere I walked there was fear. So this was the hum, also.
Nearly every day I have passed by this house. I know its outside like a favorite picture book. The glass embedded in the top of the garden wall, the gargoyles vomiting dirty water. I had always imagined what lay inside to be unimaginable, painted in colors that my eyes could not comprehend. Instead it felt as though I were descending deeper into my own brain. Anything I could think of existed somewhere in the ballroom. I saw a woman so laden with diamonds she had to bend over and crawl on all fours. The strands of diamonds hung down all around her body and over her head, making her look like a shaggy, sparkling dog.
A butler stepped into my vision, offering to squeeze truffle oil into my mouth from a dropper. I let it fall on my lips and then thought why the hell not; I kissed his meaty neck with reverence. Under his skin, his pulse deferred.
I rode a surge of blood or ocean. Imminently it would break upon the shore and I would learn something about myself. Seeking air I clicked across the golden floor, slipped through the glass doors and out onto the balcony. The night was sharp and alien. Many people mingled out here also, styling themselves explorers on a new planet. I could tell they felt very brave for leaving the noise and the light, moving into the world of insect creaks and green darkness. Behind the house the earth sloped down and away, so the balcony jutted out several stories above the ground. I went to the edge and looked over the railing. Glittering below was a fountain, a wide expanse of water in which many fish the size of men, and a young boy, had been turned to stone and now pissed and spat water elegantly through the air. Beyond the fountain was a perfectly manicured lawn. Beyond the lawn someone had practiced the art of creating fragrant wilderness, vines and weeping trees that trembled in the breeze with desire. Beyond the trees I could see the lights of the city and the place I had come from.
A knot of people next to me laughed dangerously. One young man held a knife in his palm. Everyone backed away from him, savoring their fear. He pinched the spine of the blade between his thumb and forefinger and flung the knife high up into the night. It vanished into the darkness, and he was so rich—everyone was so rich—that it never came down.
At one end of the buffet there was a table piled with whole roast chickens. Hundreds of them, bodies gleaming with crispy fat and smoke-infused salt and crackling herbs, stacked into a pyramid that towered over my head. The smell was nearly sexual.
There was an attendant nearby —who looked like every part of him was tucked into his pants—whose job was to ensure that when someone came to choose a chicken, they did not choose one from the bottom of the pyramid, that would cause all the rest to tumble down.
I went over to the table and the attendant helped me to select a hen from the top. “What will you name it?” he asked.
“Can I distinguish myself by refusing to give it a name?”
“No. Many people have already done that.”
I named it Voltairine.
There were various pins you could affix to your chicken to make it unique. I chose two pins that looked like long-lashed eyes and stabbed them into my chicken’s breast. People carried their chickens by inserting a fist into the body cavity, and balancing it like a puppet on their arm. When they encountered another person with a chicken, they would both bobble the chickens around on their fists. They made different voices for their chickens, and had them converse about current events or philosophy or other scintillating subjects. Grease and herbs dripped from their elbows.
A woman who had been ironed flat nudged her chicken coyly against mine. She had affixed a pair of bright red lips and a rainbow flag to her chicken. “Do you think this is more or less delirious than the party last weekend?” her chicken asked mine.
I was flooded with terror that I would be found out, but I quelled it and made my chicken speak. “Actually, I think any dispensation of private property can be no less than the foulest tyranny with which human animals may contend.”
Her chicken laughed. “How of the now!”
My chicken understood then that there was nothing she could say that would distinguish her from the rich chickens. There was no position she could take more extreme than the positions they could adopt for fashion. There was no amount of sincere belief that they could not also purchase. My breath came more quickly and I tried to remember why I had come here. The woman raised her chicken to my lips. “Would you like?”
Per etiquette, I took a big bite from the thigh. I raised my chicken up and she took a bite in kind. The flesh was perfect, juicy, redolent with flavor. I ate more, trying to submerge my fear. We stood together, scraping with our teeth, ravenous, altered.
Abbey Mei Otis is a match held to the gasoline-soaked remnants of realist literature. Some of her stories have been published and some others have not. She lives in Austin now but half her heart is in North Carolina and the other half is on a spaceship never looking back.