The Temp Came To The Party
By Katherine Vondy
Most of the people in the office were under thirty, but the temp was older. He was probably nearing fifty, though it was unclear if he was aware of this fact. After all, he loved all the things the young people loved: ordering flaming scorpion bowls at tiki bars, wearing tight retro T-shirts, and, most importantly, dreaming of the day—one distant, perfect day—when he would finally be in a rock band. The temp did not believe in giving up on his musical ambitions, which was one reason he was still a temp.
Brenna was trying to be a kind person (she was twenty-five and there was still time for her to become the best version of herself), so when the temp looked mournful as she invited her hip coworkers Johann and Esmé to the party, she asked the temp if he would like to come, too. "Would I!" said the temp, with an enthusiasm heretofore unmatched in their chic but corporate office environs. Brenna gave him the address and told him the band would start playing around nine.
"There’s a band?" he eagerly asked.
"Not a famous one. Just my roommate and his friends."
"But they play songs? They play real songs?"
"Well, they don’t play fake songs," Brenna tried to joke while also taking a step away.
The temp pressed closer.
"What songs?" he inquired. "Can the band play The Cure?"
"I don’t know. They mostly write their own stuff."
"But what about The Smiths? Tears for Fears? Surely they know some early U2."
"Maybe," Brenna acquiesced. "Maybe they know 'Sunday Bloody Sunday.'"
"Great song," the temp said. "Great goddamn song."
It was only eight o’clock and the house already swarmed with women sporting adorable bangs and men in vintage glasses. The party was a good one, but then, all their parties were good ones. Brenna and her roommates rented a spacious Echo Park house that was only somewhat dilapidated, so it was perfect for raucous gatherings of a celebratory nature.
The keg went in the back yard. The liquor lined the counters in the kitchen. The front yard had a well-used dart board hanging from an unfortunate tree. Their friends and the friends of their friends milled about with red Solo cups filled with vodka and orange juice, or vodka and cranberry juice, or gin and soda water, or cheap, fizzless beer.
Oliver was the roommate with the band, and at nine fifteen he started hooking up the speakers and the amps that he’d dragged onto the front porch. Twenty minutes later, the band strummed the first chords of their most popular song, which bore a striking resemblance to a track from the most recent Coldplay album.
The crowd cheered, because the band was largely competent. Brenna, high on poorly-proportioned screwdrivers, listened delightedly from the front yard, dancing in the cool non-dancey way that everyone else in the front yard was also dancing. It was a Friday night and she was young and the whole scene was fucking cool.
But in the middle of the band’s cover of “Ho Hey” (a Lumineers song which was very well-liked because the audience could chant along: Ho! Hey! Ho! Hey!), something unsettling wormed into Brenna’s heart. An uncomfortable feeling, an intangible discomfort.
"Ho! Hey!" Brenna called out, but it didn’t feel right.
Then Esmé sidled up to her, face pinched with consternation.
"What’s going on?" Brenna asked.
"The temp came to the party," Esmé said.
Brenna turned around, and through a gap in the crowd, she saw the temp. He stood at the outskirts of the lawn, a battered acoustic guitar case slung mortifyingly over his shoulder; and even from her limited view, with her tipsy eyesight, Brenna could see the hope blazing on his face. He was so happy to be at the party.
"You invited him," Esmé said: a gentle accusation. Brenna nodded (part of being an adult was being accountable for one’s actions). She pushed her way through the crowd until she reached him.
"Hi," she said.
"Great party!" the temp said.
"Let me show you around," Brenna offered. Up close, closer than she’d ever been to him before, the lines around his eyes were deeper and sadder, and the grey in his hair was inescapable.
"No, no, no," he said. "I just want to listen to the band."
The band had finished “Ho Hey” and had moved on to a song that was their version of a power ballad.
"Oh, OK then," Brenna said. She was relieved. She did not want to spend any more time than she had to with the temp. There were better things for her to do at the party.
The world moved strangely. At a slant, sometimes, and sometimes in fast-motion; and sometimes it melted into blackness. Brenna was drunk.
Johann put a sloshing red Solo cup into Brenna’s left hand.
"I already have a drink," Brenna told him, showing him the red Solo cup she already held in her right hand. But it was empty, which she hadn’t known.
"It is a gin and coke," he explained.
Brenna had never heard of this drink.
"Is that a real cocktail?"
"It’s not a fake one," he laughed.
"OK. You are beautiful," Johann said.
But now Brenna laughed, because Johann was looking at a mirror. He stared deeply into his own greenish eyes and she drank deeply from the gin and coke.
"Don’t you...don’t you know about Narsus?" she slurred. She was trying to say “Narcissus.”
"This is the end of everything," Johann said, nonsensically, drunkly.
Brenna thought about it; she could not figure out what he meant. She asked: "What do you mean, the end of everything?"
Johann did not have time to answer. Esmé ran into the kitchen.
"We have a situation," she said.
The front yard was empty, but the band was still on the porch. They were playing a low-energy version of a one-hit wonder from the ‘90s. They were under duress.
The temp had removed his guitar from its case and was playing along to the best of his abilities. His enthusiasm was boundless. When the song ended, the temp let loose with an explosion of applause, for the band but also for himself.
"That was awesome!" he shouted. "How about Elvis Costello. You guys’ve gotta know some Elvis Costello."
"We don’t know any Elvis Costello," Oliver replied, an edge to his voice.
The temp’s face fell, then brightened.
"Oh, I know! 'Sunday Bloody Sunday.' I heard that you know 'Sunday Bloody Sunday.'"
Oliver looked towards the doorway where Brenna stood. His eyes said many things, from "who the fuck is this guy?" to "what the fuck is going on?" Brenna felt the onset of paralysis; she was responsible for the situation, but she did not know how to put an end to it. She neither spoke nor moved.
Begrudgingly, Oliver nodded. "Yes. We know 'Sunday Bloody Sunday,'" he said.
The band took up the tune, falteringly. They were tired and their semi-professional sound had disintegrated, but the temp didn’t seem to mind. He strummed his acoustic guitar, playing along, occasionally wrongly, yet without regret.
Oliver sang: "I can’t believe the news today. Oh I can’t close my eyes and make it go away." His voice was hoarse and strained and angry.
Over Oliver’s weakened baritone, the temp’s tenor rang out strong and true and yearning. "How long, how long must we sing this song? How long? How long."
Brenna looked at the temp, at the wasted years that could not be erased from his skin, at the body that was no longer young. Waves of nausea threw Brenna off balance. She grabbed Esmé’s shoulder.
"You look sick," Esmé said, right before Brenna doubled over and vomited. A rivulet of puke snaked across the porch towards the temp’s feet, but even that could not stop the song or lessen his joy.
"‘Cause tonight," he sang. "We can be as one tonight."
Johann’s voice would not exit her head. "This is the end of everything," she heard over and over and over. If everything was youth, and bliss, and the promise of a bright future, it was possible that Johann was right.
It was early Saturday morning, so early that it was still night. Brenna pulled herself out of her bed and stumbled down the hallway, tripping slightly over a few errant red Solo cups, to Oliver’s bedroom. She pushed the door open.
"Oliver," she whispered. "Oliver."
She could see his chest moving up and down with his breath, but he didn’t answer her. She slunk over to his bed, tentatively slid into it next to him.
"I’m sorry," she said. "Oliver, I’m really sorry."
"It’s OK," he finally said. He put his arm around her and pulled her close, pulled her face onto his chest, which had the comforting smell of sweat and booze, unsullied by decades of adult life. How many desperate dreams would Oliver give up before he died? How many would she?
"I shouldn’t have invited him," Brenna said. "I shouldn’t have invited the temp to the party."
On Monday morning, the temp found Brenna in the company kitchen, preparing a cup of sugary coffee.
"Brenna!" he called out in an uncomfortably collegial way. "Oliver and those guys? So cool. Such a great party."
Brenna nodded brusquely. "It was," she said, and walked away.
The temp stood alone next to the coffeemaker, vaguely aware of being slighted, but too full of fantasies and anticipation to be bothered. It was finally happening. He was in a band.