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Short Fiction:

All You Can Eat

by Emily Rems

In Greek mythology, “ambrosia” is the food of the gods. It’s a magical delicacy that provides longevity to some, and immortality to others. And it tastes like heaven on a silver spoon.
 

At the M Resort in Las Vegas, the ambrosia the kitchen girls heap into a fluffy white pile at the cold salad station of the all-you-can-eat buffet isn’t quite so grand. But I still wonder about what attributes this marshmallow-citrus concoction might be able to impart—either in this life, or the next.
 

After all, in a place like this, with no windows or clocks, no day or night, a person could be 53 like me, or 153. Longevity is relative. You can spend half your life feeding credits into the same slot machine just to loosen it up. And then the minute you decide to take a bathroom break, a giggling honeymoon couple in cutoffs and flip-flops may decide to take a spin, and that spiteful hunk of chrome will just start gushing like an open wound. Showering the already obviously lucky, the already obviously blessed, with even more luck, even more blessings. I don’t know much about the gods of ancient Greece, but the gods of Las Vegas are famous for pulling stunts like that.

 

It can be tough on morale, which is why I’m surprised “Crane Day” didn’t happen a lot sooner. I’ll explain more about that later. But for now, I’ll just point out the obvious and say that when this place starts to break you down, there’s always a little comfort to be found at the buffet.
 

I won the casino’s Eat Free For Life! raffle back in 2010, in the midst of a blackjack bender, and hardly gave the perk a second thought at the time. But after mom passed away, the Studio B Buffet became my home away from home. With their interchangeable pink gingham outfits, cowgirl hats, and glossy smiles, the wait-staff there was as wholesome as a bucket of buttermilk—a sight for grief-sore eyes. Especially Stephanie.
 

Stephanie’s the hostess whose shift I usually made a point of catching. She’s got a butterfly tattoo on her leg, and when I finally worked up the courage to ask her about it, she told me it was in honor of her late mother. That’s when I knew there was a real connection between us. After that conversation, I started seeing signs and omens wherever I went: in the décor at the Encore Casino, at the Butterfly exhibit in the conservatory of the Bellagio. There were butterflies everywhere, and they all whispered softly to me to tell her how I felt. I began to see that even the Eat Free For Life! raffle had been the work of a divine hand invisibly pulling us together. All I had to do was close the deal.
 

At first I tried to establish a rapport by strolling over whenever there was a lull at her seating station to humorously report on all the gluttonous tourists going hog wild behind her. “Remember that heifer in the blue caftan you sat in section 11?” I’d ask, gesturing with my head to protect Stephanie from getting in trouble. “You should see the mountain of tuna salad, chocolate mousse, and Saltine crackers she has on her plate right now! Insane!”
 

She’d smile and laugh, but I could see tightness at the corners of her mouth that signaled to me that this was not the way to her heart. Stephanie wasn’t a bully like the kids who used to wait for me in the junior high boys’ restroom just to kick me in the balls. Stephanie was a good person. Her mom probably raised her to be kind and thoughtful. I realized pretty quickly that I wouldn’t want to spend my life with someone who genuinely laughed at jokes like the ones I was making anyway. I knew I had to show her my softer side.
 

I took a book on the ancient art of origami out of the Las Vegas Municipal Library and started practicing folding butterflies on a TV tray while watching documentaries at home. Once I got pretty good at it, I showed back up at Studio B with one perfectly symmetrical butterfly folded out of pink paper that was an exact match to her pink gingham uniform. When I gave it to her, the tightness was gone from her smile. Her eyes sparkled, and she hugged me.
 

When I came back the next day, though, I noticed the butterfly wasn’t there on the podium where she’d placed it after our hug. I asked her about it, and she told me she had taken it home. This sounded reasonable. After all, she shared that hostess podium with lots of other co-workers and she probably was afraid someone might steal it. Two days later, I brought her another butterfly for work, this time folded out of fancy, more expensive, metallic paper. She thanked me again, but this time there was no hug, just a nervous, shy kind of laugh.
 

When the butterfly was gone from the podium on my next visit, I knew what I had to do. I ate a substantial prime rib dinner with all the trimmings, then stayed up all night, folding and folding, until the whole pack of special paper I’d purchased had been transformed into a rainbow of winged love tokens. I needed to use one of my mother’s old carry-alls to transport them to the casino. But I didn’t just hand Stephanie the bag. I waited until just the right moment, snuck up behind her after I’d finished my paradise parfait and complementary cordial, and then dumped 147 butterflies over her head there at the hostess station. I had meant it to be a grand playful gesture. Like she had just won the Superbowl of romance and her teammate was showering her with paper butterflies instead of Gatorade. But she didn’t laugh, or smile, or hug me. She told me that I had made a mess, and asked me to clean it up. Her lips had never looked so tight.
 

On my next visit, Stephanie was gone. In her place was a bottle blonde named Monique. Truth be told, she seemed a little long-in-the-tooth to be wearing a pink cowgirl outfit, but there was no need to point out the obvious. I asked Monique where Stephanie was, and she said she didn’t know. When I told her I didn’t believe her, Monique’s eyes got hard. She told me that some crazy guy had been bothering Stephanie, so the hostesses had all changed their shifts around to help her out. Blood rushed to my face, and I could feel sweat pop out all around the collar of my monogrammed M Resort polo shirt as I fumbled with my “Eat Free For Life!” pass and asked to be seated.
 

Monique placed me as far away from the podium as possible, in the steamy no-man’s land back by the kitchen. One of the more colorful aspects of Studio B is that it’s outfitted with huge screens hanging from the ceiling that broadcast a rotating view of the restaurant’s army of chefs as they create their constant flow of indulgences. There was a view of the stovetops, where dramatic flames shot in the air whenever the sous chef at the sauté station deglazed a pan with a hit of bourbon. In the pastry cam, a slender, beak-faced gal in a tall white hat made identical rosettes of icing on a vast tray of little cakes like the ones my mother used to buy from the Italian bakery to serve at her bridge game. The salad bar, shot from above, was leafy and verdant, like a Garden of Eden erupting in the heart of the desert. And though I didn’t notice it at first, when the camera cycle had gone through its rotation a few times, I saw that the carving station cam, while focused mainly on vast animal flanks being sliced to order, also picked up a corner of the hostess station in the upper left hand area of the screen.
 

I drank my coffee, leisurely sampled every flavor of ice cream, sherbet, and sorbet, one by one, and stared at the bleached back of Monique’s head every four and a half minutes whenever the carving station appeared. A few hours passed, and finally the head in the corner was no longer those brassy pigtails. Instead, it was shiny long braids, black and sleek, snaking out from beneath the pink cowgirl hat. This certainly wasn’t Stephanie, but it did provide a pleasant diversion as afternoon crept along into night.
 

At first, a deep sense of calm enveloped me as I got lost in the flow of flaming pans, sugar art, leafy greens, and bleeding beef. And those shiny braids wiggling like a mirage at the edge of every fourth frame were a sweet, special accent. Like a mint left just for you on a king-size hotel bed. The longer I waited, however, the harder it was to keep my growing sense of agitation at bay.

 

This isn’t the first time I’ve been upset like this. Back when my mother was alive, she used to caution me that the world would eat up people who weren’t made of what she called “sterner stuff.” I managed to convince her to come to Studio B with me just once before she passed, for their annual Mother’s Day Seafood Buffet. I was thrilled to be able to whisk her in past the line at the register with my magic ticket and pointed out the prime rib, rack of lamb, sushi rolls, crab legs, roasted turkey with dressing, oyster bar, shrimp cocktail, honey glazed ham, and butter-poached lobster like a tour guide taking art history students around the Louvre. She smiled and nodded, helped herself to a small bowl of New England clam chowder, ate half, and told me she was ready to go. By the time Mother’s Day rolled around again, she was already gone.
 

I thought I had just been letting my mind wander, but out of nowhere I felt a firm hand on my shoulder. A teenage busboy with squinty, blood-shot eyes was muttering something about no sleeping allowed. I nodded groggily, sat up straight, and took a big gulp of cold coffee. I figured it must have been just a quick nod, but when I looked up at the screen and the carving station returned, the braids were gone. There instead, was the unmistakable auburn halo of Stephanie’s head, bent forward, as if in prayer. I knew she was probably just reading something. Or even more likely, sending a text. But the gesture struck me as so pure and sweet, especially in the midst of all this clanging, neon-lit excess, I wanted to cry. I also wanted to do something for her. Something to show her that we were the only people with any integrity left in this whole depraved city. Words weren’t enough. I wanted to show her.
 

Stephanie was gathering up her purse and sweatshirt and was about to clock out when I finally approached her station. “Oh, hi!” she said, brightly but at top volume, when I was still a few steps away. “I didn’t know you were here.”
 

“Yup,” I said. She waited for me to say something else, but I was having some trouble finding the words.
 

“You OK?” she asked. “You look kind of pale.”
 

“I made you something,” I replied, closing the gap between us in a few wobbling strides. I took a cocktail napkin out of my jacket pocket and placed it on her station. It was a little crumpled, and in the center was a rust-colored print of a butterfly, with the edges of the antennae running a little haphazardly into the damp contours of the upper wings. She stared at it mutely, not making any move to pick it up or examine it. So I hiked up the darkening hem of my pant leg, and showed her the place where I had carved a butterfly into my lower calf with a steak knife from the utensil station. It was in the same exact spot where she had her tattoo for her mom. Surely she could see that. But she didn’t say anything. She just turned her back on me, grabbed the reservation phone, and called security.
 

A week later, I received a notarized letter from the M Resort informing me that my “Eat Free For Life!” prize had been rescinded because I had violated their terms and conditions. At a loss for where to turn for help, I asked Marjorie, my favorite librarian at the Las Vegas Municipal Library, if she could help me use the computer there to contact some attorneys. She showed me how to set up an email account, and how to use Google to find law offices in our area. But after that, my time was up and she said I’d have to come back another time to do my research.

 

I was back at the library right as they opened the next morning, and I sent the details of my complaint against the M Resort to various local law firms. A few legal secretaries got back to me with their rates, but when I explained that I was looking for pro-bono representation against the casino, I never heard from them again. Las Vegas will crush you if you let it. My mother always warned me about that whenever she thought I was spending too much time at the tables. But at least the tables have rules and players know where they stand. If a man wins at blackjack, some pit boss doesn’t send a letter to his house a year later demanding that he give his chips back. He won them fair and square. But I had won goods and services instead of money. And now some legal loophole was allowing the M Resort to literally take food out of my mouth. It was a kick in the balls worse than any I’d received before.

 

But Stephanie was no bully. I knew if she were just made aware of how I was being treated, she would be shocked at the injustice of it. Not only that, but she’d probably do her best to help me get my prize back. Now that I had some distance, I realized that when she called security that night, she probably thought she was helping me. After all, there was a decent amount of blood filling up my loafer at the time. So much blood, in fact, that she might not have even been able to discern that what I had carved into myself was a butterfly. Her butterfly. One day, I was sure, we would laugh together about this terrible misunderstanding over a slice of mile-high lemon meringue with two forks.
 

I returned to Studio B during the late-night shift, presuming the new hostess schedule was still in place. But when I got there, the gal with the long black braids was up front, so I turned around and left. The next day, I came back during the lull between breakfast and the lunch rush. It’s a time when the staff routinely converts the omelet station into a risotto station, and when Stephanie and I had previously shared some of our best repartee. But some young Asian girl with a nametag that said Esther was working instead. I asked her what her real name was, and she said it was Esther. I clarified that I wanted to know what Chinese people called her. She said she was Korean, and asked me for $15.99. I tried to tell her that I was a prizewinner, that I didn’t have to pay, and that Stephanie would vouch for me. But before I could fully explain my situation, a manager came over and asked me to leave.
 

I also told him that Stephanie would vouch for me, but he wouldn’t listen. I offered to pay full price that day with the understanding that I would keep my receipt for reimbursement once this whole matter was sorted out. But he told me I was banned from the premises, and that I wasn’t allowed in even as a paying customer. A small line of tourists had formed behind me and they were all staring as if I had done something wrong. It felt so terrible, I ran out of there and headed straight to the library to inform the attorneys I had contacted previously that a good deal more mental anguish had been experienced since I’d last written them. I pointed out that my settlement should be even higher now, but none of them got back to me.
 

That was a week or so ago, and since then I haven’t had much of an appetite. My leg is swollen, crusty, and beginning to ooze. Even the documentaries I used to enjoy in the evenings have become an irritation rather than a pleasure.
 

Try to understand, I’ve been banned by the bullies at the M Resort from the last place I ever spent Mother’s Day with my mom. It’s also the last place I ever felt happiness, or excitement, or hope, or any kind of real human connection. All people need human connection. I saw a documentary not too long ago about the long-term psychological effects of solitary confinement, and that’s basically what the M Resort is inflicting on me now. The only difference is that the prisoners in the documentary had a fair trial and all I got was a notarized letter in the mail.
 

An ancient Japanese legend I read about in my origami book says that anyone who folds a thousand paper cranes will be granted a wish. So from this day forward, I am switching from butterflies to cranes. I’ll focus on my wish with each crease, with the honesty and sincerity that this kind of project deserves. I plan to fill my whole car with them, until my fingertips are calloused and cross hatched with paper cuts, and every empty space but the driver’s seat is filled with this one, sacred wish, over and over again. Once the thousandth crane has been folded, I’ll drive the whole shebang to the M Resort, light the car and all the wishes ablaze as an offering, and head down the concourse to the Studio B All-You-Can-Eat Buffet to see if my wish came true.
 

I’d like to say that I have the utmost faith that this experiment will work. But sadly, I do not. That’s why I’ve written a 270-page letter of explanation that I’ll be sending to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, as well as to all the law firms I’ve previously contacted, on the morning of what I’ve decided to call “Crane Day.” That’s also why I’ve purchased a handgun. After all that’s happened, after all the times and ways I’ve tried to make himself understood: by Stephanie, by management at the M Resort, by the lawyers, and the librarians, and even by my own mother, I can’t bear the thought of being misunderstood at the apogee of my human experience. Handguns speak a language that is globally understood—the muzzle, a universal translator. Of course, if the hostess just lets me in when I arrive, the recipients of my massive pile of documentation might read it with puzzled surprise, and wonder, “Whatever happened to that guy?” Maybe they’ll even show my letter to their friends and have a good laugh.

 

But if they don’t let me in—if whatever cowgirl is working the entrance frowns at me under the brim of her pink hat, turns her mouth into a hard, glossy line, and picks up the phone, I won’t wait to be removed by some brute. I’ll remove myself. And I’ll know two things. I’ll know why this happened. And I’ll know that my mother was right all along. This world is no place for magical thinkers. It’s made for men of “sterner stuff.” And for newlyweds in cutoffs and flip-flops who always win on the first try. PnC

October 2015

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He won the casino’s Eat Free for Life! Raffle - but what he wanted most wasn’t on the menu.