Today is my 46th birthday. In honor, here’s a story I wrote in 1994, when I was young and full of snark, and touched up in 2018.
The party was in the upstairs of one of those holed-out warehouses in the formerly industrial part of town that glow so nicely as the sun is setting but accost you with their faded murals all other hours of the day. There was a bit of stench off the water as my wife and I waited for the elevator, but the breeze was definitely cooler down low along the river and I pointed this out to Annabelle. The humidity had been driving her mad. She had bought a silk blouse from Nordstrom’s for the express purpose of this party, which distinguished and celebrated people would be attending, and now on the drive over the jewels around her neckline were clinging bothersomely to her skin with sweat.
I should say, though, that Annabelle had asked to go by “Flooze” tonight, for the sake of the party, so now let me iterate that the humidity had been driving Flooze mad, not Annabelle.
No one knew what the occasion of The Party (as I had come to think of it) was.
“You really don’t know what this thing is all about?” I said, as we chugged up the escalator, listening to the rattle of chains and the woeful strains of rusted I-beams.
“I told you,” said Flooze. “I asked everyone. I asked Tinker Toy Jackson. I asked Samuel ‘Flotsam-Jetsam’ Horowitz. I asked Emelia ‘In-Her-Perpetual-Regalia’ Abercrombie.’ ”
These were some of the aforementioned celebrated guests. People who had risen to the upper echelon of their fields. The pinnacles and apotheosis, incarnate and also insert a meaningful Latin bon mot.
“However, someone suggested to me that this is a party of publishing types,” Flooze added conspiratorially.
I kept that in mind as I settled into The Party, but there weren’t any galleys or a copies of a quarterly being passed around. And I never saw or spoke with an author or anyone who had seen, who knew, or heard about any authors at all. Nevertheless, the smell of acid-free paper was in the air, and the idea of some commercial capacity for disseminating words persisted through the parlors, dens, and kitchens of the townhome where The Party was held.
Or was it an artist’s loft? It was hard to say.
Flooze mingled quite heavily, as she feels obligated to do at parties, but neither did she learn of the occasion or hear a peep about authorship or uncover any passionate scribes. But then Flooze was vomiting off the balcony by ten-thirty, so who knows.
I was in the vestibule chatting with a man introduced to me as Snorter of Methane at the time that happened. I had just finished describing to him the dilemma of my wife’s jewels when her vomitus roaring reached our ears from the balcony. I quipped, “I guess jewels are the least of her troubles now, eh?”
Snorter of Methane was an unmistakably (I wanted to say “unmistakenly,” ha ha) … ah, an unmistakably sober and clear-eyed fellow. He was concerned about Flooze. But I assured him that Flooze would be just fine since she hadn’t drank a drop.
What a pleasure it is to fit in at a party!
He then excused himself—I figured he was headed to the bathroom for a fix of methane. Imagine my surprise when the chap went instead to the master bedroom and returned wearing a long brown leather coat with fringes at the hem line. He crossed the room to the bar where he stood nursing a single drink the rest of the night.
“So like his kind,” I expressed to Antiquarian Man, who was now at my side. Though I’d been anxious before, unsure that I’d be welcome in amongst this set of professional consorts and God knows what else—now I was glad I’d come. I looked around for Flooze from time to time to see if I could corner her in a cloak room or something and ask if she had any dirt in regards to the occasion of the affair or the locution of its authorship—I mean to say, whether it was a party of died-in-the-wool [sic] bookworms or scrolling vagabonds or erudite letterpress dweebs with their ex-libris stamps to go just after the frontispiece and before the prologue! Ha! I couldn’t wait to find out.
Well, I didn’t find out much, as Flooze was indisposed and I continued to be captivated by the entourage, hosts, and guests alike.
Antiquarian Man was a great fellow, a regular fixture at these downtown shindigs, he told me, though he couldn’t identify, either, the fete’s point of origin as concerning its intentions. He was drinking one of those clear wine cooler drinks in the ridged glass bottles. We got along splendidly. I had been having some trouble at work with my computer programs and he recommended several solutions. He even phoned into his office and left himself a voicemail reminding himself to take care of this or that for me.
“You’re quite antiquated!” I yelled, as the party was extremely boisterous at this time, with David Bowie and Lou Reed and such, rising to a pitch of some sort.
“That’s the only outmoded technology I allow myself,” Antiquarian Man said. Then he became downcast and somber. “It’s a vice, and I should do something about it.”
I enjoyed a lengthy patch of confusion, waiting for him to reveal himself. But he became entangled with his Armani dinner jacket while pocketing his flip phone in his breast pocket.
In time, we enjoyed a full-throated, if exploratory, chuckle.
So much transpired at The Party. Dr. and Mrs. Winterbottom of Their Barnacled Glass Boat were there, dressed in tuxedos and jackets and brooches and holding watch fobs and also two Springer spaniels, one in each of their enfolded arms. The good people had been misinformed. They thought the party was more along the masquerade lines.
“So you’re over-dressed,” I remarked. “So what? You can’t even buy those silly eye covers on a stick anymore.”
They said nothing, only grinned abjectly.
“You couldn’t find a sitter for your precious pups?” I asked.
None of this was as unusual as the fact that Dr. and Mrs. Winterbottom of Their Barnacled Glass Boats were not from the east or west coast. They weren’t from any coast, in fact; they had never lived on a lake or owned or even visited a cabin on a lake. And they sure as hell didn’t have a boat on which barnacles could grow. Or live. Whatever it is that barnacles do. I can’t keep track of all these nuances.
Later, over some liver pâté in the kitchen, I discovered more about these ostensibly monstrous people and the dogs they carried. They were really a splendid couple, it turns out. Mrs. W.T.B.G.B. worked as a substitute teacher at an inner-city school and was privately taking dance lessons to fulfill her lifelong wish to tango in the moonlight.
“Indelibly virtuous,” I said to the person who was telling me all this.
The male of the species, in his own right, was an advisor in the admissions department of one of the consortium colleges, and he had a solid habit of yielding patiently to his wife whenever she had something to say.
“Regan,” I said, the name of the woman explaining all this. “Have you looked deeply into this situation, as into a looking glass, for evidence that Mr. So-and-So might in fact be cheating on his missus, a woman who, even in her three-foot wig, tempts my eyes?”
Some party, it was. The Party, no question. You say that with a long ee sound to clarify your intended emphasis.
Well, when shove came to push, I had a mind to believe, at this point, that these people were literary types of the utmost. But I couldn’t be certain, and I dreamed of a time, some twenty years hence, when I could hold a wallet-sized device in my hand and ask it any question in the world and have the voice of an intelligent and thoughtful woman answer me with an algorithmically generated answer. I would ask her, “Becky, are the people at The Party literary types? They are, aren’t they?” But I could perform no such an act of reconnaissance at the time, it being the year 1994.
Around nine a woman named Alison charged into the living room with the authority of a circus ringleader and ordered us to come to the toilette (spoken in a Francophone manner), because we were going to play a game. A group of us including Nate the Great Letter Opener, Iguana-Face Jones, Guy with the Muscles in His Eyelashes, we all voiced our approval and interest and gathered up the personal artifacts we had put to rest, temporarily, on the furnishings all about the scenario, and set out toward the sal de bain.
Along the way, we met Nevertouch, Replete Repleter Repletest Jacobsen, Sassy Susan Schleshlinger, Paul “Hair Afire, Schmair Afire” Reyes, Anthony “Redeye” Kazmarek, Virtuous Man, Sinister Man, Reclusive Man, Man Who Reads Conrod’s Nostromo Over and Over Again, Chinese-Cooking-is-for-Me Man, and Melody Sunshine Sunflower. We merged into a tight cluster beside some family heirlooms and squeezed into the bathroom midway down the hall. We condensed there around the medicine cabinet and beside the tub, under a single bare bulb hanging from the rafters, and donating out attention, indivisibly.
(I suppose it was the woman’s corralling of our spirits that leads me to call her a circus ringleader. It was rather summative, I confess. I could have offered a glimpse of what she wore and left it at that, but then a person could do the same for a department store mannequin and what would that prove?)
“Folks, this is called The Name Game,” Alison said, and it made perfect sense to me that the proposed game should be linguistic in nature. That is to say, it was as if a light came on. I felt relieved at knowing with certainty that this clan was entirely devoted to books and wordsmithery and the like. It was something of a community, I supposed, though I don’t know if that word is necessarily the most…kind of…germane and all. Shall we say, pertinent?
Sassy Susan turned to me, saying, “Bill, Bill mo mill, banana fanna mo mill, fee fi fo fill! Bill!”
She was delighted and we had a great roar of a laugh together until the circus ringleader informed us that we would be playing a different Name Game.
A respectful hush became a part of the conditions.
We were then directed to write our names on slips of paper, and pass them forward. Alison put them in her knit hat, stirred them convincingly, and we each drew one apiece. The object was to take the person whose name was on your list and locate them, thus encouraging the meeting and chatting amongst strangers. We had done a bit of this ourselves, but now it had a nice formalized yet dumbly obligatory air to it.
I was feeling dainty by this time, thanks to three Greyhounds, a pint of Irish stout that had been forced on me, but which I enjoyed thoroughly, and whatever pills I had popped in the library earlier (it seemed apt at this party that their exact pharmacological nomenclatures remain obscured). I took part in the game feeling the results were as important as that of any World Series, war, election or epidemic. My wife, dear and delicate Flooze, rejoined us now, bleary about the visage, and she rolled her eyes at me in response to our assigned task, making the drinky-drink gesture.
I said to her, “Isn’t the air conditioning nice? I’ll bet your jewels aren’t sticking now, are they, dear?”
“I’m sorry,” she said, reading from the slip of paper in her hand. “Have we met? Are you Skipper Fat Slim MacKimber? We’ll excuse me, I must locate this most outstanding and unique man.”
“Yes, of course, my darling,” I said, in a way that I felt was appropriate to The Party. I felt in that moment, as I moved out of the cramped and moldy bathroom into the loge and serviceman’s area, that I was amongst a people who heartily and heavily confounded me in the most abundant and meritorious way. I was greatly impressed.
I was on my way in search of my Name Game person, when there was a commotion at the door. I later learned it was Mr. Barry Hannah himself who had rang and been refused admittance.
Good god! This was stuff for tabloids, if only they covered this sector!
I set about my task, but I didn’t locate my intended partner with any immediacy whatsoever, and that afforded me time to reflect. For my own self, I rather thought that regardless of the orientation of this soiree, the genus of its populations, I had comported myself with dignity, and that was the thing that mattered.
Yes, of course, my darling. That satisfied me to no end, that I had said such a thing, given the circumstances. It added significant weight to my personage, and no one could take that from me.
I crossed the room looking for… check that slip… “Beach Boy McCoy (World’s Leading Aficionado of the album Pet Sounds).” Deep amid the throng, I spied Flooze standing, closely engaged with a man I assumed to be her partner in The Name Game. I heard her say, “The writer’s job is to write with authority, and this can be done in a number of ways, whether using charm or passion or anguish.”
So she was talking about writing now. Skipper Fat Slim MacKimber must have brought it up, and this indelibly sealed the deal. I had this cohort pegged down to the very letter! I wouldn’t be surprised if I became entangled in typewriter ribbons before the night was through! In passing, I noticed the good Skipper was completely unbedecked in nautical accouterments of any kind. No sailor’s blouse, no forearm tattoos, not a hint of chafing on his skin, the kind one acquires from lusty sea gales.
“The weakest of these is surely charm,” Flooze added, as I faded from range of her, acoustically speaking.
No question now, and greatly strengthened by it, I passed through the crowd conclusively regarding every person as a bookworm, one aspiring to authorship, and also your regular ruggedly adroit poets and maybe even librarians and bibliophiles, prone to resting pencils behind their ears, bookmarks falling from their pockets.
Out on the rooftop garden I located the good Mr. McCoy. I asked him to corroborate.
“None among us would even admit to what this is,” he said gruffly.
This was an upsetting outcome, most contrary to all indications. What he uttered next was said with such stern grief, it caused me to reconsider a good number of my accumulated certainties. He was a very dignified character, tall, burly, nicely clad in a brown plaid blazer.
“Sometimes,” he said, “I wonder why I’ve been invited at all.”