The Ambience


by Drew Diemar

The shooting stars are getting a bit old. Yes, they’re a classic, and God knows I’d probably never have stayed in business for such a long time without them. It’s just that lately I’ve been setting off the damn things so much that it’s been getting a bit tedious. I was thinking of hiring out some kid to do them for me, but no, he would probably tell all his friends about his cool gig and I’d be the subject of some folksy newspaper article. Plus the profit on the stars is good; it really supports me when business is slow, and it’d be a shame to have to split it.

I’m leaning against a tree, across the little pond from my client and the subject. I can barely see them, but that isn’t all that important. Stars are usually easy enough to do from a hidden position not far away. It’s 11:34 pm. My client and his sweetheart are sitting out in the dewy grass, taking an allegedly impromptu break from a party. Behind them from where I stand is the scene of the party, a massive Adirondack that must belong to one of the revelers’ parents. I feel a pang of hunger in my stomach, and wish again that I had brought a little snack. I’m so far away from them that I could certainly eat in peace without my discovery; hell, I could probably call my mom and ask her how she’s been. But no matter, at least this is a simple job and I’ll be out of here in a half hour. I can grab something at Burger King along the way home. 11:41.

I got the idea when I was in high school, out to the movies with my folks. Saw a flick called Funny Farm, remember it? Remember the final act, when Chevy Chase and his little wife there are desperately trying to sell the house to some bright-eyed couple from the city? Something hit me when the couple’s looking out the window, and one of the townspeople who’s in on the scheme says, “cue the deer,” and out springs Bambi from a cage, who bounds across the yard and the couple gets all doe-eyed, so to speak. In the theater, there was a big laugh, and I laughed too, but after the movie, I got to thinking. Why had Bambi springing from the cage been so absurd? Seemed to me there wasn’t any reason one couldn’t really pull off such an operation. Seemed to me such an operation might yield pretty good results.

I mean, people make up their minds about things for very strange reasons. Ask an advertiser. Humans fancy themselves to be a rational species, but we are far from it. We pray, we make sure to never go grocery shopping on an empty stomach, we love. Do you know how much higher the application rate of colleges is for kids who visit on a sunny day versus a cloudy day? If you want to see a rational species, look at ants. You think an ant would ever up and decide not to carry his little leaf segment back to the colony because it was cloudy out?

I take my airplane out of the duffel bag. Very simple piece of machinery from my standpoint. Two parts: a wing and a fuselage. Plus the remote. And the little LCD light. I shield the light from the lovers with my hand and check to make sure the remote sets it off. All good. Then I fit the wing into the slot on the fuselage.

The airplane is quiet, since it runs on a little fuel cell instead of gasoline, which I like. Wasn’t cheap though. Last one I used, a bargain, was so loud I had to camp out like two hundred yards from my client. Made it pretty hard to confirm that the lovers saw the star. I still have it at home in the garage. Maybe I’ll take it out during the day sometime, just to fly it around for fun like it’s meant to be used for. I’ll probably sell the damn thing, to be honest. With this one, though, I can stay close enough to see with my own eyes when the client and subject are looking up, when they commence to make out if all goes well. Only problem is, the engine’s not quite as powerful as the old one. Takes a little while to circle around before I reach an altitude sufficient enough for the plane’s shape to be indistinguishable in the sky, especially during a fullish moon like tonight. I flick the propeller and the “on” switch on the controller to get the thing started. 11:46.

The first job I ever did was for my old girlfriend Angela, who worked in real estate. Didn’t see anything wrong with the way they did it in the movie, so I changed not a thing. Caught a deer in my yard: I know, it was cruel, it was illegal, but I promise it was the last time I pulled that stunt, and it didn’t get hurt anyways.

Took me two weeks to catch the little fella. She was scared too, and I almost let her go right there, but I was too excited about my experiment. Got it all set up in a cage with a little remotely triggered latch, then waited for the signal from my girlfriend inside the house. It was a couple that was looking at the house, and when I cued the deer, the guy turns to Angela and says, “they get a lot of deer here?”

Angela gives them the sweetest smile and says, “A whole lot, especially in the winter. They visit my apartment all the time and I don’t even live in the woods.”

The wife just turns to the husband and says, “Sounds like a bad place to put my garden.”

I changed up my tack a little bit after that. Started to get a bit cleverer.

When the clients were out with Angela being shown a place, I’d do a little break-in job. Their bathrooms at home smell like lavender? Well wouldn’t you know it, the bathrooms at the house they looked at smelled like lavender. “Hey honey, looks like the folks who live here are Giants fans too!” If I found a bible in any prominent place in the clients’ house, you could be damn sure there’d be a bible sitting right there on the kitchen table, opened up to Exodus.

You had to be a bit careful. I found out that it’s more creepy than endearing to people if the CD they had just been listening to happens to be playing at the house they were now looking at. In my profession, finding the delicate balance between the skepticism-inducing and the awe-inspiring is a necessity.

I guess word around the real estate office spread. Before long, I was doing jobs for all the agents, and charging a meager commission when my tactics worked in conjunction with a successful sale. But when Angela died, I guess I got a bit of shell shock.

She had gone to Brazil on a whim, and I stayed behind because I had a big job to pull for one of her coworkers: some dog-toy placing, television removing, temperature adjusting. It was just basic stuff, but the house was huge and I stood to make a pretty good amount in the event of a sale. Angela told me she’d seen a painting of the Cristo Redentor statue in some house she was showing. Sounded like the kind of thing I’d put up in a house to lure some kids with traveling proclivities. I still to this day wonder if someone had put it up to get her to go, another ambience specialist like myself.

Apparently she jumped out of the way of some kid whizzing by on a moped and got blindsided by a bus. Whether she made it to see the statue I don’t know.

So I quit for the time being, just staying at home not doing anything and wishing it had been me instead of her, wishing I had been to that house and taken down that stupid poster: the usual survivor’s guilt routine.

My whole world opened up again when a guy who had been a colleague of Angela’s called me up because he was in a serious fix. He had been taking his dad to all different nursing homes to go on little tours, but his dad had been really swept away by this place in Scottsdale. The only problem was, the place would’ve ruined the son, so he wanted me to help inspire his dad to move into a somewhat more affordable home. I decided to do it because I felt like a bum not doing anything at all, and I liked the idea of pulling off a job without having to do all this research, which had always been my least favorite part.

Having this guy sit down and tell me everything his dad liked was a revelation to me: this was the way to go. Create little miracles for people who know what miracles their loved ones sought. For that guy’s dad, all it took was a chicken parm sub at lunch to convince him that Gentle Acres was the place to be.

The plane is climbing steadily. I keep it circling around, climbing, climbing. To be a convincing shooting star, it has to be in the middle of a dive, which means that if you mess up the first time, or if loverboy isn’t directing his lady’s attentions skyward, it’ll take a couple minutes to circle back up and try again. I have a little altimeter in the remote, and finally I reach 200 feet, which is generally plenty high enough to make a convincing star.

My client and his sweetie are now lying down. I check my watch and see that I’m 4 minutes early, but since they’re looking anyways, I decide to go ahead and pull it. I knock up the lever to make her dive and flip the switch on the light remote. I look up to see my job well done, and look down to see a satisfied client place a kiss upon a somewhat misled young lady. But then I see that something’s gone wrong. 11:56.

I got a lot of offers from people at Angela’s office, and friends of those at the office to assist in such events as first dates, anniversaries, proposals. I think that at first they were calling me out of pity for what had happened to Angela, you know, trying to help me serve her memory in some way. The new jobs came pretty naturally to me, however, and soon I was yielding solid results, the object of pity no more.

Hiring rude waiters was a surprising success; I guess it gave the diners an immediate sense of camaraderie, plus provided an easy topic of conversation. Sometimes all it took was an air freshener in the restroom of the hotel, a pinch of coriander on the salmon to stimulate the senses. I bought an FM transmitter and trailed my clients’ cars, announcing in my best DJ voice that coming up next we got something for all those with someone special nearby, and why don’t you lean over and give that special someone a kiss for me. Then I’d put on whatever song the client and his or her lover called “theirs.”

Over time, I began receiving a lot more jobs in the negative. Convincing kids not to smoke pot (cockroach in the baggie), convincing husbands to stay in for the night (Jurassic Park is on TV!), helping to nudge the kids to find their own places (bedbugs).

Assuaging breakups was a big one. It helped the guy if the girl he was breaking up with was getting sweet text messages from her girlfriends all day; a man takes being dumped a lot better if a sexy woman has been giving him eyes all night. A couple times, jaded exes hired me to ruin their former beloved’s date; that was easier said than done. I forsook the classic ex-lax method for subtler, though equally nefarious tactics: a disquieting odor emanating from nowhere discernible, some extra-boozy drinks.

Nowadays, the shooting-star gig is my most popular gimmick, despite my charging even if cancellation is necessary due to cloudy conditions. I do still get those challenging jobs though, the ones that make me glad to do what I do. I’ll take a day spent in some corny bowling alley, rigging the pins to fall so my client can impress his business associates over a shooting star gig any day. It takes more time, it sometimes means less money, but it’s a chance to innovate, to practice my trade.

As time went on, and my reputation spread, I began to get pretty well compensated for my endeavors, I’ll tell you. However, I always made sure to keep my client list exclusive, my business a quiet affair. Yes, I’ve thought about hiring a few staff, getting an office with business cards (We Cue the Deer!), but if word got out what I did, there would surely be imitators, perhaps an entire industry specializing in the enhancement of ambience. The business would eat itself away: every time the perfect song came on, or the flowers were arranged just so, it would be suspect, as likely to be the workings of tamperers like me as of coincidence or fate, if there’s a difference. As I said, I must maintain a delicate balance in my workings.

I’ve had some regrets over the years, sure. Felt like I’m helping a guy or girl cheat, or held myself responsible for a date ruined that needn’t have been. Overall, though, I don’t think what I’m doing is that out of the ordinary. You know when a hotel brags that it “anticipates your every need”? You’ve probably never even thought about it, but that’s utterly impossible. No one can anticipate your every need, no vacation getaway is perfect, no date goes by without a hitch. The fact that we allow ourselves to say such things expresses, in my estimation, a desire for such perfection to be handed to us. We want our every need anticipated; all I’m doing is anticipating a small detail to help cover up all the inherent imperfections.

Besides, is hiring me any more nefarious than leaving things to chance? Say coincidence has it that a shooting star comes down, and the guy gets the girl. Is he any more deserving than the guy who doesn’t get the shooting star?

If anything, it’s chance that’s unfair. It’s chance that let Angela get hit by a bus: what if somebody had had some control over chance and not let it happen? All I do is imitate chance. I make chance function the way it should. It’s better than some bullshit “what’s meant to be will be” copout. Tell that to the guy who was praying for a sign, a shooting star, and got a shitty lonely life instead.

I’m running along the edge of the pond toward the lovers and the house a hundred yards up the hill. I’m trying to be stealthy enough to not alert the lovers but I’m also moving quick: I got to get to that plane before it gets noticed by any of the partygoers. That thing cost me close to a grand, and I don’t want to explain its or my presence, much less plead for its custody.

As soon as I had hit the off switch on the light remote, it became apparent that I no longer had control of the airplane. Whether the batteries in the remote died or the plane flew out of range I don’t know, though neither of them seems likely. Hadn’t I charged it today? Haven’t I done the shooting star gag from further away than I had tonight?

I manage to make it to the opposite shore, and beeline for the house. The client and his girl take no notice of me; they seem to be pretty engrossed in each other. As I get close, I begin to scan for where it may have landed, but I see nothing. The house that the lovers came from is alive with energy. Inside, I can hear somebody playing piano, and plenty of drunken vocal accompaniment.

Suddenly a girl steps out of a sliding glass panel, holding a cigarette in her hand. She’s got on a beige cardigan over a hip-length, deep purple dress. Black flats on her little feet. For a second, I freeze, but then I quickly sidestep behind a tree. I peek around the tree to watch her.

The girl lights her smoke and looks skyward for a moment, exhaling a thin cloud. She then turns and gazes out to the pond, past where I am. I wonder if she can see the lovers from this distance but I dare not look their way. I can’t even move at this point. I don’t know why. Suddenly, something catches her attention, and she takes two halting steps toward me. It’s then that I make out the tail of my plane. The body has crashed nose-first into a bush.

As she reaches out and pulls the plane toward her, I step out from my hiding place. She jumps back, surprised, letting the plane drop to the ground, and looks at me. Above her head flashes the biggest, most bold shooting star I’ve ever seen, leaving a streak in the night sky so close in appearance I feel I could reach out and catch it.

 


Drew Diemar grew up in the green hills of Vermont, wondering what tourists saw so fascinating about his little state. He now resides in Salt Lake City, Utah, and realizes the romanticism surrounding his home state may not have been so misguided. He enjoys reading and coffee and the outdoors.

 

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