The night is starless, the trees, leafless, and I don’t feel so chipper either. It’s me, Gun-Marie Collier Carpenter, and I, a new-found hermit, ambitious to be a pariah, am off to a horrible party. I suspect I’ve been invited out of pity. My husband has left me for another woman, a younger woman and presumably tonight my hosts intend to feed me in order to express sympathy. I am late. I drive slowly and pray for an adequate miracle.
I am in an unfamiliar district, piously near, but at a safe distance from the black community. I pass a neon-glut of fast food franchises and pray on. And lo a detour. Surely I will get lost. Hallelujah. Another detour. Are they digging up the world? I am convinced of salvation when suddenly I am at my destination. The house is old and ramshackle and not picturesque. It has a fresh coat of khaki paint. A redwood deck has been attached.
Earl answers the chimes in a shirt of last year’s color, and shoes that are this year’s neutral. I bubble apologies that blame the detour, and Earl gushes a diatribe on the throw-away culture, idiots in the Highway Department, idiots on the City Council, government bureaucrat idiots in general, his taxes, and the need for a well-staffed, well-financed citizen ombudsman office.
In the living room my suspicion is confirmed. Besides the Gourmet Club hosts, three couples from the university faculty who are Jerry’s clients, the guest list consists exclusively of lame ducks. There is poor Mel, recently “let go” from the History Department, there’s poor Gail, radiant as if from a day in the country and repulsively thin, and here’s poor me, my soul wounded, heartbroken, and tongue hanging out for a drink.
Instead I get sherry. I search for a chair and come face to face with a mirror over the mantel. I take a moment to recognize myself. I forgot I dyed my dyed auburn hair its natural brunette and hacked it short. From my neck swings my great-grandmother’s dainty gold locket in which I have substituted pictures of my great-grandfather and Calvin Coolidge with Alice, 11, and Nate, 8, who are socialists. With the heirloom and outfitted in brown velour blouse and pants, I resemble a decorated guerrilla soldier in luxury p.j.’s. Except for the glittering green eyes, which are witchy.
The search for a chair proves difficult. Meanwhile I hear a hubbub. “Hi. G. M.” “Hello, G. M. Good to see you.” “G. M. Hi.”
It is unfair to call me G. M. I can’t help it I’m an heiress. The greetings are extremely peppy. Do I sense a strain in the atmosphere? Yes, indeed. A volunteer in a pediatric cancer ward, I know the signs. People bounce. Nobody asks how I am.
I descend with speed, bonk, to an enormous fur cushion and am proud I didn’t spill much sherry on the stained, threadbare Oriental rug. As the greetings and smiles fade, I realize that at 34-and-a-half I am the eldest.
Gail speaks. “What a pretty necklace, G. M.” Her speech is slack, toneless. Her make-up artistic.
“Thank you,” I say. “I love your plaid.”
Talk resumes. I try to concentrate, then duck. Swooping at me to attack is a 10-foot-long, 5-foot-tall, arched, chrome insect with a burning round head. I hope it is a lamp and vow to be brave and not think about sex. The sherry is excellent. I would welcome mediocre Scotch.
I am aware that my arrival interrupted Earl. Balding and pudgy at 28, and with granny glasses, he tilts back in a hot blue canvas chair and holds forth. He aims at Vic. “I admit,” he says, tilting dangerously far, “America’s short stories are good, awfully good. But, of course, the novels—” He thuds to the floor. Earl has a British accent. A Los Angeles Jew with a Hitler mustache, Earl Siegl attended Oxford one year.
His opponent Vic Buck smiles from a discolored wing chair under a small, thick-streaked, angry pink painting that fits my mood exactly and might fit into my purse. Vic is brown-haired, brown-eyed, and rather like a quarter horse—sturdy and quick. In striped pants, red blazer, and bold shirt and tie, he seems the upward mobile banker type. He listens to Earl with a constant smile that waits.
Vic’s field is Modern American Fiction. Thirty-two or 33, he has been at the university ten months and has tenure. Earl, a specialist in medieval poetry, has been at the U three years and does not. I have deduced that tenure is a guaranteed life income with the fringe benefits of executive privilege, divine right, and infallibility.
Vic offers the sherry around just as Earl, plucking his mustache, chants, sneers, “In the final analysis, The Old Man and the Sea is a soap opera for the nouveau intelligentsia, the paperback pit pack, the educable, but alack, unredeemable masses.” He beam’s.
An egghead leftist, Earl loses interest in the masses once they cease starving. I look at each person. To judge them. I am feeling superior. My judgment is: some of these people are sinners. They have the sin of hubris. But if I feel superior, does that mean I have hubris? Awful name. Makes the sin sound like a disease. But, I think, if I see my own hubris, that must mean that deep down, way deep down, I am marvelously humble. So I can go right on feeling superior. Since I lack competition, I can feel holier, too. By accident I sip the sherry.
Earl drones. Marlene and Nancy sit in self-conscious serenity. The Staneks smile agreeable smiles. Has the Gourmet Club, as is said, bitten off more than it can chew? Why, why did they have three at-large basket cases in a package deal? Are they the damned Death Committee?
The Staneks, though club members, dramatize my own feelings of displacement. The Staneks are always quiet. They escaped Czechoslovakia in 1968. Small and dark, Emil and Irena have stooped shoulders and huddle together on a black vinyl couch. Their watchful reticence is mysterious. They are mysteriously dapper for a physics professor’s salary. Their clothes are subdued to a point of dullness and of exceptional cut and material.
Earl and Vic’s wives sit on an immense burgundy corduroy cushion below orange lacquered shelves and a stereo. Earl’s wife, Marlene, has shoulder length, dark hair parted in the middle, bright eyes, and wears a patterned skirt. Nancy, Vic’s wife, has shoulder length, sandy hair parted in the middle, bright eyes, and wears a patterned skirt. Marlene is about six months pregnant. Nancy is not. Marlene is extraordinarily pretty. Nancy is not. Marlene has the delicacy and coloring of sea shells and a storm of black hair. Her nose is unbobbed. Slightly beaked, it is a minor flaw, but when she is older, her nose will become strikingly autocratic. Nancy forever fluctuates between plump and fat and has Little Lulu cheeks. Why didn’t Marlene marry Vic and Nancy marry Earl? Nobody consults me. Why did I marry Jerry?, they would say tactlessly, and I, with the wit of Noel Coward, would retort, “Touche.” I’ll keep quiet.
Vic returns to the wing chair. Earl makes himself feel better by shooting down his betters. I remind myself it is his house, and I’m here on charity. But when Mel lights another cigarette and Nancy moans, “Cigarettes, yuk,” my beautiful self-control cracks. In a factual, nothing personal voice, I say, “It keeps him lean.” Gawks. Nancy, who is in a fat period, hems, “Uh, that’s true” and blushes. She is grotesquely young. To stamp out pangs of remorse I remind myself of the brown health-food rice Nancy once served Jerry and me. I felt I was eating from a trough.
Marlene leaves behind her burdening bouquet which she carries with the ease of slow waves. She glides through a doorless doorway into what seems a disaster area. A refrigerator and stove crowd the middle of the room. Dishes are piled on the floor. The walls have nail marks, no cupboards. Earl and Marlene are having their kitchen remodeled by Hank Walgreen. I heard Nancy and Vic are also having their kitchen remodeled. Walgreen is a bearded young laggard grump, sought after as an endangered species, a class craftsman. Like Jerry, my ex-broker, he is a liberal and gets the liberal’s trade.
The nesting instinct, I think. When Nate was a baby, we had our kitchen remodeled by Walgreen. This summer I was geared to call Walgreen to do the bathrooms when Jerry left me. He came home from a business trip full of news of a 24-year-old Santa Barbara chick. Jerry must be an ideal father figure. Experienced-looking, competent-looking good looks. Dignified silver hair. High income. He told me again and again he had to go to her. He seemed to ask my permission. He cried 12 hours and left.
Earl goes after Saul Bellow and Eudora Welty. Vic, who has a reputation for intelligence, smiles and smiles. Does he rest for a big kill?
I have avoided Gail. But if I didn’t know, I might not detect that the parts of her body not concealed by the smart, bulky knit pant suit are almost fleshless. Her face glows with the naturalness of fashionable cosmetics. She has lustrous curls on a brunette wig. When she neglects to smile, her gaze is blank. Her fingers pick the wool on her sleeve. What can be done for Gail of more substance than a dinner party? She catches my tearful stare. Her eyes ignite. Although her self-exposure panics me, at the hospital I’ve learned that the dying usually want to be treated in a normal everyday manner, so I must honor that wish, not indulge my frightened pity. It seems the useless tears bury themselves in my chest to hide, churning like a flood. At the same time I am very afraid for Gail. I am crazy. Gail is dying, but she won’t die tonight.
Why am I here? To forget the world’s misery, that’s why. It would be fun to hit the insect lamp. However, the Gourmet Club might think me bitter and be embarrassed. Vic trots across to fill my glass, which I am startled to discover is empty.
I haven’t seen Mel in ages. I remember Jerry said Mel wrote a series of controversial papers that sent the History Department into a ruckus. Mel always looked like a bum, and unemployment has not improved his grim demeanor, trimmed the shaggy brown hair, fattened him, or made him any chattier. Since the Garden of Academe has gone belly up, the land is overpopulated with more tractable, younger, more virginal Harvard Ph.D.’s. Is he conspicuously close-mouthed tonight because he fears he might disillusion the young? He does not trouble to smile, just smokes.
I glimpse Marlene in the kitchen. Normally composed, she stands rigid and flutters. Marlene is a reporter. Within a year on the afternoon daily, she was promoted from the women’s pages straight to the front section. Several of her articles have been prize winners. Now she cooks. Her hands worry aloft an aluminum mold. From what I can tell she does not breathe.
Earl spanks air. “Today,” he sermonizes, “literature has, in the final analysis, relinquished its role, its function, its purpose as society’s seer and hence is being outdistanced. . . .”
Is there an enterprising business that counterfeits Ph. D. union cards? I sip my glass, but it is empty.
Marlene, her eyes anxious, looms in attention, commanding stillness. We troop, hesitate, then squeeze into a candlelit room. What a horrible party. The chairs scrape rudely on the hardwood floor. Marlene vanishes. Through the swinging door I see a new stainless steel sink. Since somebody has to be the soul of the party, I ask Nancy, “Has Walgreen deprived you of a sink?” We have a rollicking discussion on how many weeks we did our dishes in the bath tub.
Then Gail starts. A hush falls. Her voice is like a tired machine. “When I had my first apartment I didn’t have rags and I didn’t want to. . .ruin. . .my towels.”
A silence until Earl says that one has to be rich to own rags. The men discuss books they expect to write. A gimcrack, coolie-hat-inspired, apricot chandelier is unlit above us. The tablecloth and napkins are rugged forest-green linen. The plates are surprisingly bourgeois with laurel leaves and a sealloped gold border. In an oval, sterling vegetable dish floats a gaudy bunch of zinnias. The flowers appear enviably drunk.
Silence. Earl pours wine. Marlene, her black hair in bedraggled strands, her coral cheeks red, minces in. Her forehead glistens. She hoists what seems a swollen, green-speckled, ivory Jello that jiggles. Nancy shouts, Beautiful. I am about to say, Lovely, when Irena chirps, Lovely. I think fast and chirp, Marvelous. Marlene gingerly cuts portions with a pie cutter.
“When I had my first apartment,” Gail says in her slurred monotone, “I bought a gourmet cookbook. But I couldn’t afford the . . .required utensils. I didn’t have dust rags.”
I stiffen. The dread intensifies. They dart stares and, embarrassed, stare at the table. How did Gail come here? By bus? It should be so easy to reach my hand to Gail’s. Earl rescues us with a story of a doctor friend who prepared Peking Duck using surgical instruments. The wine is excellent. “The wine is excellent,” I say, and get another glass. Nancy says the mousse is a masterpiece.
I am relieved that the mousse is delicious. Delicious, I say, as Nancy drowns me out to bellow, Marvelous. Irena begins to speak when Earl zigzags his spoon and pronounces the mousse: sublime. I gather Earl won.
“Pin a rose on you.”
I register that it was I who spoke. It just popped out. I think fast and laugh merrily. Everyone laughs merrily, but Nancy and the Staneks sneak glances. From now on I won’t utter a word.
Marlene has not yet tasted her monument. She chews, eyes heavenward, her expression deadly earnest. Then she beams. So does her husband. Marlene relaxes. Her hair seems care-free, not disheveled.
Nancy asks, “After the baby how long will you take off from work?”
“I could take a month. But I’m only going to take a week.”
What does she want to prove? Her virility?
She says she hopes to receive editorial assignments soon.
Marlene’s speech is Bronx or Brooklyn, maybe Riverside Drive, ironed and bejeweled to imitate the Eastern Establishment which imitates the British aristocracy, which is in bad shape. And where would she be if she retained her native tongue? My own speech is pure and light, blessed by money, except when mad. Then not even money can redeem it.
Nancy vanishes into the kitchen. Due to the brown rice I am apprehensive. There is a tintinnabulation of pots. Why, I wonder, didn’t they have the party at the Staneks’ since their kitchen is not in shambles? Another mystery.
Earl twitches a smile at Vic. He informs us, “Prose, of course, is, in the final analysis, a not particularly satisfying, hence, a not particularly satisfactory art form.”
Should I advise Earl that he is a blatant bloody ass? The truth might set him free. The wine’s sour caress teases and bites and soothes. I will not look at Gail. She will be all right. My foreboding is ludicrous.
Suddenly Earl stands and brandishes his fork. “If,” he barks, “storytelling had not been invented, poetry would have been delayed by one week.” When he sits, he drains his wine glass.
Vic is ready. “Ahhh,” he intones in a roar, “but that was the week of Creation.”
Hysterical laughter. Gail smiles, pretending to understand. What a dismal party. Should I clue them in that this is a dismal party, and they can quit exerting themselves and we can all go to bed? Perhaps I am in a negative frame of mind. Though you may not have noticed, I am not in a very good mood. The Lady of Shalott did not suffer such a steep funk.
Vic’s chunky face is jubilant. Earl cackles dryly. When he finishes cackling dryly, he takes a swig from his empty wine glass. A drop loiters in the glass. I am polite and don’t point my finger at him and giggle. He distributes wine and uncorks a second bottle.
These people litter my landscape. The wine proffers rough kisses.
Further kitchen remodeling talk. I am reluctant to mention my sullen and resentful gold oven. Perhaps it dreamed of a life in aerospace. Not only does it frequently catch fire and blow fuses, I have lost money in the company that manufactures it. There is something deeply wrong in a society when you cheat the public and still lose money. Talk about babies. Then talk about the right nursery school and the right teacher and the right toys. The Staneks join in. Emil’s nose is identical with Marlene’s.
Mel has remained taciturn. Taciturn, melancholy men seem so intelligent. I help myself to wine. I decide to fall in love with Mel. Provided he doesn’t open his mouth, I won’t be disillusioned. Maybe love is what I need. I try to recall the words to “Fascination.” Snatches of “Bye Bye Blackbird” drift in. I try to remember the entire song but can’t.
Marlene clears the plates before Nancy zeroes in with a Dutch oven as a tureen. While she thumps back for bowls, the talk progresses to toilet training. Nancy yells from the kitchen. The conversation is lively.
“In the final analysis, who’s toilet trained?”
Oh pshaw. It was me again. I laugh a tinkly laugh. They stare and laugh and look away. I pray, “Help me be good.” What are those lyrics?
Start the fires late tonight? I’ll arrive late tonight Bye Bye Blackbird
While steam billows, Nancy ladles soup. We sniff and sigh. Marlene’s sigh is the best. I can’t smell a thing. The soup is beige. I bet it’s wheat germ soup.
In an obvious effort to give them attention, Earl asks the Staneks, “How did you manage to flee Czechoslovakia? Do you have a rousing escape tale?” Earl’s smile is benevolent. We turn to the Staneks in expectation. The Staneks sit straighter and appear bigger. Emil glares at Earl and mumbles a few loud unintelligible words. He is capable of faultless English. Everyone except Gail scrutinizes their respective silverware. I goggle at the Staneks. Who or what supplies their expensive costumes?
When the soup is served, Earl quips, “Soup’s on.”
At that moment I doubt my judgment of Earl. I have great faith in mankind. Hence, I cannot believe that anyone can be such an absolute and total zilch. I shall watch him. We endeavor to dip our spoons in unison. Marlene is the leader in the chorus of sighs. After she swallows, she says, “This is delicious.” The soup is horrid. “Wonderful soup,” says Gail. I discern a tightness to Gail’s face. But I am grandiose in thinking I should help her and nothing will happen. I am not a soothsayer.
Vic is beaming at Gail, “Nancy made it while she studied for midquarters and tended David and Susan.”
I am kind and don’t say: it tastes like it. I am delighted the soup is awful. The soup is as heavy and tasteless as oatmeal. I wish it were oatmeal. Nancy brags that she did not add a smidgeon of salt. She describes what salt does to one’s electrolytes and metabolism in her most ostentatiously puritanical manner. A Christian martyr, I suffer in silence and snap at God: don’t make me giggle. Repressed slurps. Faces are too polite. The slurps become inaudible and refined. “God, stop horsing around.”
What is that line? “Keep the fires on tonight”? Does the candlelight lend Irena’s complexion an olive cast? Am I my grandmother’s granddaughter? Am I as bad as she? My grand-mother was a Scots immigrant at seven. Her father achieved a prompt prosperity. That done and the brogue eradicated, she could be scorned as nouveau riche, marry into respectable old money, and envision upstart Jews everywhere. She always had Norwegian maids because she insisted Norwegians made superior maids. (Dark-haired Norwegians were smarter than the blondes.) How was Emil’s nose smuggled through Eastern Europe? Earl is indubitably a sociopath or a throwback or a gremlin.
Out of the blue Gail says, “What a lovely necklace, G. M.”
A flurry of glances. Gail’s forehead is wet. The tan and rosy cheeks have smudged. Her eyes trickle blue. She shovels in a mouthful of soup, then gulps wine like medicine. She shouldn’t drink.
“Thank you.” I flounder. Did I admire her pant suit? It doesn’t matter. Again it seems so natural to touch her hand while I just say, “I love that plaid.”
Under their stares I pour wine for Gail and me. I am incensed that in order to safeguard Western Civilization I am beholden to consume this glotch. I am enraged at the soup. In desperation I drink. With an alarming absence of originality, I dwell on the obscene amount of food. Nancy must be thinking on similar lines.
“Aren’t the famines terrible?” she asks. “And nobody talks about them any more. America must share its bounty.” Vic snorts that he has no intention of nurturing vipers who are pawns. Nancy interrupts her husband, “I read that the under-privileged countries view population control as genocide.” Vic snorts that everyone knows that. Famine seems to be a powder keg in the Buck household. Earl is the diplomat, and we agree that we can no longer afford to eat. Peace reigns three minutes, during which the altruistic enforcement of the haves’ influence is broached.
I ask, “Do the haves have influence?” They laugh. Why do they always laugh at me? I wanted the right answer. I laugh.
An animated war blossoms. Nancy shrieks that we—and ignoring Vic, she glowers with prissy ferocity—must foreswear our selfish and unwholesome and absurd eating habits. Her Little Lulu cheeks balloon. “To use food as a weapon would be an unnatural atrocity against God.”
“God who?” The talk continues. I continue to drink. The solitary note of accord is that the world will end soon. That topic, I thought, died out two years ago. The talk escalates. Brute force in the guise of volume triumphs. Earl as Churchill propounds a vague doctrine on the necessity of fairness. Unanimous support for fairness. A change of subject.
What ignoramuses. Don’t they know that this time they won’t lick envelopes and parade on behalf of Righteousness? Don’t they know this party is dreadful? But I won’t let the end of the world worry me. I have enough worries. What a mean trick. A depression when I’m in my prime.
The neglected soup is tepid. We buckle down to the soup job with diligence. Nancy and Vic and Earl have second servings. A terrible, terrible silence. Earl is too busy being conscientious about the soup to feel morally responsible. The silence is ghastly.
Here I go swingin’ low, Bye Bye Blackbird
The party seems to disappear and I to leave the party for imagination invades. Bodies drop. In a black and white news-reel of my brain the gray bodies keep dropping. These dropping bodies of faceless strangers intrude. Nagging tongues stick in and out, in and out, in and out, in and out. Children too weak to cry harass me. These gray people, nourished on fatalism, attempt confrontations that are too feeble. Then it is too late; the people are too feeble. Where food is available, people wail. They have not been allotted the official cards. I hear the wails. Bodies drop. The bodies writhe. Tongues suckle air. Births fester.
Deirdre would not put up with starvation. Deirdre is my cleaning woman. An obese, sad-sack deserted mother of six, even she would act. She would at least have the initiative to murder and rob me. Unequipped with a vocabulary to theorize, she has the common sense to intuit that if you tolerate bizarre behavior, you get bizarre behavior.
If I tolerate bizarre behavior, I will get bizarre behavior. Deirdre and the hungry are my potential enemies.
I must not broadcast these notions. The darlings are too innocent, and the humane Nancy’s conditioned reflex would be to slit my throat. Am I unfair? Besides, I might dampen the festivity. Furthermore, I never argue with people because I am always right.
But perhaps I am no better than these talky talkers. No, I am vastly superior. The proof of my superiority is that I criticize them. While Earl pontificates, I suckle wine to dilute my gruel.
Then Mel plunks down his spoon and lights a cigarette. His bowl brims. His sad face is tranquil. He seems to welcome defeat.
Nancy protests, “Yuk. There’s nothing worse than cigarettes.”
“Oh, lady, this soup. This soup. ” Guilt inspires me to be civil. I ask Nancy about her job plans. When she invited me, she said she would get a job after she completed her B.S. She lists offers she’s rejected. “What I really want,” she confides with energy, “is to organize a co-op daycare center or a co-op health food store in the neighborhood. I can’t decide.”
I rely on “How interesting.” To myself I confide: Nobody can do anything anymore; everybody administers. We are all educated and unskilled. Like my charming plumber.
“Light the fires late tonight”? That has to be the first line, but can’t be. I do hope Nancy washes her hands before she cooks. “Light the light”? The important question is how to burgle the ferocious pink painting. And the insect lamp is awkward as well as large. The painting, though, is compact. I am too full. The room is stuffy. The soup is cold. Mel chainsmokes. Is this earth soup? The room is stuffy.
Earl, the dutiful host, ferrets out my private complaints. “If,” he smiles—either wryly or ironically—”we opened a window, the burglar system would trumpet.”
I have been studying Earl. My conclusion is: he’s stupid. Never before have I encountered a stupid Jew. Earl is a lesson in brotherhood. Also he has a savior complex. He is determined to save us with his stupidity. He is the good Christian, sacrificing himself to keep the party going. Earl has another problem. He is a nervous wreck and two steps ahead of the men in white. Why did Marlene marry him? Why did I marry Jerry? Because his driving expertise thrilled me. “Somehow hard luck stories they all find me”?
Gail speaks in an aggressive tone that jars. “The soup is delicious, but I know there’re more treats to come. I’m going to save. . . .” A gray hue has permeated her cosmetics. She clenches and unclenches the napkin. The napkin has flesh colored stains.
Feeling frighteningly and despicably helpless, I try to help. “It is filling, but marvelously homemade.” Hypocrisy makes the world go round. I want to cry. For Gail? For me? For the world? But intestinal agony puts holocaust in perspective. The end of the world is no big deal. Mel smokes and drinks in excess. I know: “Oh, what hard luck stories they all hand me.” Yes. I will not stare at Gail.
At last Nancy clears the bowls. Marlene brings in salad. Thankfully, it is an ordinary salad. Nobody feels compelled to compliment. While we nibble lettuce, conversation sort of sparkles. The prospect of global doom is obliterated by chatter about their personal prospects. Each Gourmet Club couple expects a grant to Europe and to plant a vegetable garden. Happiness might be an unalienable right. Only a wet blanket would nitpick about the “pursuit” detail to these plucky, cocky faces. What do they want?—just Everything. Mel is dreamy. I can’t help looking at Gail. She has what can only be described as a “frozen smile.” Her fingers gouge a roll.
Will Jerry find The Promised Land, The Great Society Medicare with his Santa Barbara superchick? I have a case of instant hangover. Which I don’t deserve. I help myself to a third or fourth or fifth bottle of wine.
Gail looks elderly and miserable. She should go home. I should mind my own business. The wine’s sting still strokes.
Here I go, swingin’ low,
No one here can love and understand me.
To fantasize sex with these infant boys may be unethical and uncouth. It is unexciting. That 10-foot chrome loopdeeloo, though, has definite possibilities.
Vic is speaking. He breaks the unwritten rule of dodging problems in hand’s reach. “Well, Mel,” he scowls and scrapes back his chair, “you have to admit you committed a horrendous sin.” Mel tries to smile. He fails. “Originality,” sing-songs Vic. “The single worse sin in the academic world is that of genius.”
Laughter. I will fall in love with Vic. Mel is a boor. His melancholy is pompous. Vic is gutsy. He has the killer’s instinct essential for success and wholesome well-being. During the laughter Gail and Irena leave the room. Does Gail feel sick or is she fastidious about her make-up? Let poor Gail be, I command myself. Earl replenishes my glass. Perhaps Marlene has secured an attentive, loyal wife. And Vic and Nancy may share a common interest in ideological warfare. What is that damn line: Is it: “Light the light”?
My heart gladdens when Irena brings in a roast. My heart sinks when I learn it is engorged with chestnut stuffing and goose pate. As Irena carves, Gail trails in. The vividness of her fresh make-up is freakish on her drawn features. She should go home. Like a ninny, I just sit, keeping back tears. I should take some kind of action, but it might be the worst cruelty to offer unasked-for help, and this premonition of doom is mere silliness, a figment of a worrywart mind.
Again a quest for the perfect accolade. I discipline myself to not spit out the stuffing. I eat fast to kill it and get it over with. I check on Gail. I am not comforted. When not swallowing food in minuscule bites, there is a constant urgent swallowing action in her stringy throat. I should stop being a worrywart. She will be fine.
More kitchen remodeling talk. At least I got out of bathroom remodeling. A gold trim to every mushroom cloud. The hangover has been cured by a stronger dose of wine. I am in a stupor which passeth understanding. I smear the pate over my plate. Gail copies me. Drunkenness cuts through a daydream, a relic of a dream I unburied when I had to accept Jerry would not return. I won’t be a real nurse when I grow up. Very suddenly I am tired. Exhaustion is restful. My anger and fear vanish, and now that the fear is gone it seems too strange to have ever been felt. While I listen to Earl and Vic engage in parallel play monologues on their papers in process, I don’t envy their exuberant aggression. I envy their stomachs. They eat as if hungry.
A chair screeches and crashes. Gail is on her feet. She grips the table as her body earthquakes. She gulps and grunts. Then the violence hurls her head forward. A small opaque puddle hits the table. The table skids. The flowers quiver, their water sloshes. The wine glasses totter and spill. A candle tips and is extinguished. Gasps. Silence. The reaction I sense is acute embarrassment. Tears stream down Gail’s sweaty face. Years at the hospital propel me to lead Gail away and follow her to the bathroom.
Before the toilet her body, set free, goes into volcanic explosions. First comes the masticated meat and a liquefied version of the stuffing, next shreds of bright green lettuce, next a beige ocean, the soup. A lull while she gags. I flush the toilet. Then the lovely, marvelous, ivory mousse. The stench almost makes me throw up, though I should be inured as a volunteer and mother. The finale is another opaque puddle with an island of blood. I flush. The gay cosmetics ooze on Gail’s wretched face. I strip her jacket. I take pride in doing the job with efficient gentleness. She vomits sobs. When I wipe her brow, she shoves me. “Get my purse.” Her attempt to command becomes a sobbing growl.
In the dining room a genuine and very overt pity masks a more genuine horror that has not erased the embarrassment. Without Gail my fragile protection of professionalism abandons me. I hate myself. I should have obeyed my intuition to aid Gail in fleeing this party. I am terrified. Pity fills me with wildness. I want to weep and scream.
“She needs her purse. For medicine, I think.”
“I thought she was better,” Vic says. He jerks his colorful tie.
Nancy cannot conceal that she is peeved. “What’s the matter with her?” she asks and her voice scolds, the Little Lulu cheeks deflate. Her party has been spoiled.
“What is the matter?” asks Marlene. Her voice is sympathetic, but alarm and disgust mar her sea shell beauty, and she expects reassurance.
Now my tears free the caged hate of any desire for containment.
Mel pipes, “What’s wrong with her?”
“Death,” I snarl. “That’ll do it every time.”
Their prim shock yields a bit of satisfaction. I don’t see the purse. Did Gail actually bring one? I keep finding my own purse and, flustered, hold on to it. I kneel near her uprighted chair and search.
“I heard she’d had a meaningful remission,” says Nancy.
“So did I,” says Irena. The Staneks have been so quiet and small and dark I had forgotten their existence.
My hands paw the floor. Imbeciles. Don’t they know to prolong life is to prolong death? Let’s hear from Earl.
“I heard her headaches were better,” nags Nancy.
She must think death is psychosomatic.
“I heard she’d improved.”
That will be the day God improves. Though the purse is not under the table, I stay hidden. I am afraid to emerge. I am too angry. An impulse to scream scorches my throat. My stomach is sick. Feet are ugly. What is to be done for them?
“Maybe this is just a relapse.”
I have to come out. I am nauseated. Why is Earl mute? I raise my head slowly to not faint and wait, crouched. My legs tremble. Fury reels through me. My fury frightens me when I remember I am in boutique guerrilla army velour and feel emboldened and more furious. My eyes, I know, blaze greener than emeralds and are better than any witch’s. My head throbs. I also remember I am drunk. Good. That will help.
“Tom and Betty Newhart said she had improved.”
I balance to remain crouched, then dish out fire and brimstone. “Don’t you know the average American dies under a doctor’s care?” Very good, I tell myself. All spin toward me. I proceed, my rants in hisses so Gail will not hear. “Do you think—because—because—you can create light and water— and—and waffles and—music with a flick of your finger—do you—do you think you are God?” Not so good, I tell myself. I pause. They gape. Why, when I think, are my thoughts brilliant, but when I reform the world I utter gibberish? Why can’t I be brilliant now? The wine has made me sound like a Methodist minister. Perhaps I sound like Earl. Who cares? He got me drunk. I have another idea. “Do you think because you can dial a prayer you are immortal?”
My temper tantrum failed to boost my spirits. I still want to weep. And I want some Alka-Seltzer. And a leader.
“Let me help.” Earl has spoken. He scrambles under the table to hunt where I have already hunted. He hides, bustling with rodent noises. He is apparently tongue-tied. I seem to have silenced everyone. I stand and examine the room. Their fright is pathetic. I feel remorse until I spy the vegetable dish of flowers off center over a wadded napkin on the table cloth. Were they determined that the party go on? Was the Gourmet Club disillusioned to discover death is not decorative?
In their insistence on pretty happiness, reality is not enhanced; it is forsaken.
The purse refuses to magically materialize no matter how often I inspect the same places. Moronically, I keep checking my own purse in my hand. Gail may have imagined she brought a purse. The invisible Earl scratches and puffs. The others don’t budge, but I notice Vic’s eyes travel methodically.
“I’ll try the living room.” My voice is casual. Depression has pushed aside anger. I am too tired. The anger in the pink painting is obnoxious. I can’t find the purse. I hurry. Why am I obsessed by death? Because I’ll be sent to Hell, that’s why. A child cries, and Marlene chases upstairs, glad to feel needed. I don’t find the purse. After I’ve finished, the party clusters in the hall. The remains of Earl’s hair are flyaway. He rams his glasses against his nose. I join them. They seem afraid of me. Good, I think, but don’t feel it.
Gail approaches. Her face is a mess of rainbows. Her hands are mottled. The wig is askew and bristled blue white scalp is bared. Her eyes burn dully, both tormented and fierce. Her expression is bitter. No, she looks cruel. Now she stares. Her fiendish misery terrorizes, coercing us to see, see. She smashes through specialness, the core of our equilibrium. A purse twirls from her hand. I should have been more competent.
Though I don’t want to, I have to give her a ride. Then Vic, without a word, marches to Gail. With deft strength he lifts her. Gail droops. She shuts her eyes. Her mouth contorts. “Open your eyes,” says Irena. “You will feel less pain,” Emil says. How did they know that?
Coats are donned. Irena tucks Gail’s around her. Earl scurries outside. Did he think to fetch a car? Earl will be a dean. Wonder of wonders, he doesn’t speak. Vic maneuvers Gail through the door and the Staneks accompany them. Above, the child laughs, another survivor of nightmares. How many pogroms did his ancestors elude? How many schmucks must he outwit? How will I outwit life? How will I kvetch through life? Mel mutters, Thank you, and skedaddles. I fumble for a polite, not too ridiculous good-bye to Nancy. As I turn toward the door, I observe a chocolate and whipped cream castle on the kitchen counter.
But when I reach home, there is no rest for the weary wicked. Jerry’s suitcases are in the hall. “Hi,” he shouts from upstairs. He sounds elated. I am not elated. I prayed and prayed to have him back, but now I don’t know if I want him. I was getting used to running things my own way. God doesn’t understand me. But this is what is.
Jerry rushes down the stairs. I tug the pink painting from my purse and slip my loot in the closet. I’ll think of an explanation tomorrow and write a check for the incorrigibles. God won’t know the difference. The painting can adorn the new master bathroom. On a grey ivory wall. Maybe black lacquered cabinets. . . Jerry is in view. I am delighted that, despite the boyish grin on the distinguished visage beneath the elegant, exquisite silver hair, he looks exhausted and like Hell. What on earth did she do to him? His eyes, though, are as big and blue as ever. They would make lovely earrings.
We grab. Our embrace hurts. I will not cry. Not black cabinets. I feel myself slow. The tears fall asleep. Teak cabinets. . . I am tired. Everything slows. I stop. His power and need seem to curve about me like solid sunlight.
The wife again, I ask, “Hungry?”
“I’m starving. Let’s eat.”
“Me eat?” I am ready to giggle, then realize I am starving. I have never been so hungry. I start hamburgers and buns while Jerry gets out the stainless steel. The cooking smells are surprisingly friendly. The kitchen seems a kind and honest place to be. Godless, I pray in silence for Gail.
“Where were you?” Jerry asks.
“I went to this—this party,” I begin and we sit together at the counter to talk and eat.