That Vast Self-Regard

Enough was never enough. He wore his mouth, that perfect pretty mouth, in a fashionably dissatisfied twist, like he’d just eaten a lemon out of overbred courtesy. His hands, his lovely longfingered hands, were never at ease, never at rest, but fluttered constantly between hip and chest, elbow and chin, inscribing graceful curlicues in the smoky air.

Heartbreaker.

Gorgeous and weakheaded, stonehearted, he razed the fields, salted the earth, left women and men lamenting behind him. Sackcloth and ashes. Who cared? There was always another willing captive snared by the long curve of his neck.

A dreadful bore.

Politics, always politics; copper mines in South America, revolution in the Middle East, assasinations in Asia, fascism in Europe. He stood in a corner, beautiful and shallow, and filled his mouth with himself.

That Devoutly Wished Consummation

The throng parted, and there at the other end of the room was the Old Man, stark in his colorless clothes amidst the gaudy riot of the revelers, a smooth piece of volcanic glass in a tumble of rubies, amethysts, lapis luzuli. “Hold this, won’t you?” Leslie murmured, and handed his glass to the earnest, balding young man who was so desperately talking about stocks to anyone who would listen. The young man didn’t pause, just tightened his grip convulsively on the glass and redirected his stream of jargon to a mostly passed out caryatid patiently holding up the bar.

The Old Man was churning relentlessly through the crowd when Leslie caught up to him, circling, circling, endlessly, tirelessly, talking to no one, drinking nothing, eating nothing, just rubbing elbows and chuckling mordantly to himself. “You made it,” Leslie wheezed; it had been years and decades since his lungs had been called on to power anything more robust than his usual listless drift from conversation to conversation. “You made it!”

The party started to wheel about him, all laughing faces and clinking glasses. He clutched the Old Man’s elbow harder, pulled him to a stop, to face him fully. “I kept the faith,” he pleaded. “I want you to know that. I didn’t forget. I kept the faith.”

He’s dead by the time the paramedics get there. The party slowly drains out, the ticker tape parade rained out at last. Ahasuerus lingers behind, wishing mightily he could remember anything at all about the dead man.

Gibsons

He watched as thirty caterers, housemaids, waiters and decorators prepared for the evening’s party. He was standing next to the bar, resplendent in a robin’s egg blue suit, hair and tie rumpled to an exacting degree, slowly sipping from a vodka martini, letting the warmth of vermouth spread through him. The bartender was an enormous pile of a young man whose elephantine neck strained the collar of his silk shirt almost to bursting. They were all college students now, all the waiters and cleaners and servants, all pressed into livery for the night or for the weekend, and all thinking of the time to come when they should hire the servants for their own parties. When had they gotten so young? There was something ancient and ageless in the bartender’s eyes, a wearied professionalism that hid all his personality away, behind a tuxedo jacket and a scarlet cummerbund.

He finished his martini and the boy poured him another one without asking, floated an onion on the end of a pink cocktail skewer in the shape of a pirate cutlass. “Expecting a big crowd tonight, sir?”

“No more than usual.” He bit into the onion, let the bitterness fill his mouth.

That Unwilling Comfort

It was summertime, a dusty, late August when everything was gilded with the foreknowledge of colder days to come. The party was outside, splashed gaudily across the lawns, everyone dazzling in pinks and yellows and greens. After six hours the gin and the vodka had made everyone’s eyes too bright, voice too loud, laughter too hollow. He wandered through the party, paper plate laden with potato salad, collecting swatches of conversation.

A man and a woman were arguing about philosophy, leaning into each other and yelling in German. The man threw his drink in her face and she socked him in the eye. Leslie pulled them apart. He handed the man to one of the staff and walked the woman to the carpark. She just sat in her car, slumped slightly forward, eyes unfocused and sad. “I was right,” she said. “I was so right. He just wouldn’t listen. He was wrong, he was so wrong…” Great, fat tears ran down her face and left dark splotches on the gravel.

Across the park there was a screech of burning rubber as the man left. “In our failures we are most ourselves,” said Leslie, and patted her awkwardly on the shoulder.

That Apocalyptic Humor

for my sister, whose name I stole

Half the city was on fire, reaching long red fingers of infection toward the clouds. The party went on, though, the curtains thrown wide against the walls so the ruddy light might more fully fill the room. Leslie moved around the room switching off lamps, slipping between chattering tangles of men and women, their voices as clattering and senseless as mynah birds. The room grew brighter as the song of the bulbs was stilled. The fire wavered and rippled over the roll of the pianola, sparking through the glasses sweating atop it.

He stood with his back to the window, counting heads and figuring sins. In the firelight they were a demon city, Pandemonium visiting the final days of Rome, ungulate legs hidden in wingtips and sequined pumps, wings and tails pressed beneath sloppy zootsuits and incarnadine low-waisters. With the lamps all darkened they appeared to swim through the apartment, wobbling boozily from table to bar to corner, from window to door to balcony.

A slip of a girl was at his elbow. She was looking out at the city. “So much is gone,” she said, “never to return.”

“What burns, must burn,” he said. She watched the fires.