Green Hills Literary Lantern

The Party

   

 

The street was poorly lit and at first Ware was afraid he had taken a wrong turn.  Then he saw the cars and the house, like a vast lighted ark, welcoming visitors in from the cold.

He stamped the snow off his feet in the vestibule.  The high-ceilinged, spacious rooms already held clutches of people waiting to surprise Dottie Lindle on the occasion of her sixty-fifth birthday.  A chandelier diffused golden light over the oriental carpets in the dining room, where a pianist played a tune from the 40’s.  The living room was crowded with pieces of comfortable furniture which, placed at angles, appeared to have washed up here as if carried by a flood.

Ware surveyed the crowd, leaning against the wall with his beer.  It was diverse, with different age groups, like biogeographic zones.  He was glad that the guest of honor was of an age to which he might look up, from a lower latitude, rather than of one, say, of her daughter, Gracie, the hostess, to which he must look down.  He viewed himself as falling in the northern temperate region; no longer, certainly, close to the warmer zones, but not yet in the sub arctic areas or even close to the tundra of old age.  He glanced around for Arlene.  She had not yet arrived.  He was not surprised; although he did not know her that well, he sensed she would make a late entrance.

Jerry Miller flopped up to him, carrying a mixed drink.  He was one of Art Lindle’s patients; Ware knew him from a singles club both had belonged to years ago.

“What about those two?” Miller said, nodding toward a pair of women in the living room.  One had a nondescript face, steel wool hair, and a wiry body; the other an alert expression with breasts too heavy for her frame, causing her to tilt forward.  Ware merely shrugged.  Neither appealed to him that much, although the shorter woman’s  breasts intrigued him.  He planned to concentrate on Arlene.

Someone said, “They’re here,” and Dottie Lindle entered with her husband, Art, to shouts of “Surprise, surprise!”  Both were unusually trim and fit for their age.  They were always biking or walking for charities and often wore sporty clothes.  Ware admired them.  Still, he noticed Dottie’s wrinkles, so at odds with her cap of sandy hair, and her neck, stretched into a kind of second blank face.  He also noted the ruts in Art’s cheeks and his wild, loose expression.  It frightened him to think he would become like them in another decade or so.

The welcomers dispersed.  Art Lindle got a drink and held forth to Ware and a cluster of other guests.

“We’ve been married thirty-four years and I’ve got to say it hasn’t been easy,” he drawled.  “I gave up trying to teach Dottie tennis a long time ago.  But I tell you, she can walk circles around any woman her age.  She and Alice Borth did the Five K for the Heart Association last week and they finished ahead of most of the men.”

Ware froze.  Alice Borth.  The name flew up and stared at him like a crow perched on a wire.

“I used to know an Alice Borth,” he said.  “She was a runner.”

“She and Dottie walk together three mornings a week,” Art said.  “There she is, right over there.”

Art pointed toward the two women Miller had noticed.  The one with the gray hair was the person who almost twenty years ago had removed her clothes in his bedroom.  Her former face was hidden behind the new one, like those old puzzles in which shapes are disguised by wayward lines.  Her body seemed to have shrunk.  This woman had taut, sprung hips; the one in his bedroom had an ampleness that had amazed him.

“Yes, of course.”  He felt glassy.  The lights, the music, the guests, were unsubstantial compared to the image of her in his bedroom.  He turned so that if she looked his way she would see only his profile.  Yet he was probably safe.  She was a good distance away, across the hall, beside the fireplace in the living room.  In fact, an encounter need not even take place.  The house was large and it was filling with guests.  Even now, Alice and her companion were drifting toward the back study and game room.  He became calmer.  He might as well enjoy the party.

Ware strolled over to the grand piano where the performer gazed out over the keyboard with a permanent smile affixed to his face.  The polish and insouciance of his playing indicated a hired professional.  Several of Gracie and Jim’s friends from the subtropical zone were sampling the appetizers that had been placed on the back lid.  Ware joined them.  The woman he stood beside seemed beautiful, though he would not have noticed her when he was her age.  The fine hairs over her lip evoked Alice and the dark triangle of her sex as she said, I’ll do anything you want me to, Dave.  You can buy the marriage manuals, anything.  The affair had been brief, the ending awkward.  He would not say that he had mistreated her, but he had not treated her well.  After a few weeks of ignoring her, she had called and said, “I just want to know where I stand.”  He had mumbled some standard phrase about “not wanting to get involved.”  In fact, for some indefinable reason, he had found her repulsive.

“Who’s that?” asked one of the woman’s companions, a broad-chested man in a white shirt.

Ware snapped back to the present.  Martin Bolinger, one of the regulars at the tennis club, was posing at the entrance.  He wore only a sport coat and a muffler coiled around his neck like a python.  He glanced about with a curious, obtuse expression until Grace hurried in from the kitchen, took his muffler and handed it to her little boy, who ran it upstairs to one of the bedrooms.

“One of Art’s tennis buddies,” another man replied.  He had a thin, sarcastic mouth.

“Art still plays tennis?” the first man said.

“Old man’s tennis.”

“What’s old man’s tennis?” the woman asked.

“Doubles.  They stand around with their feet in cement.  This dude can still move a little, though, so, like, he’s always poaching.  Comes on to the women, too.”

“You didn’t tell me they had Viagra in the locker room,” said the fellow in the white shirt.  He had the top two buttons open, revealing a curly chest.

“You guys are terrible,” the woman said.  “I think he’s nice-looking except for that hair.”

Bolinger had given himself another bad dye job, a river of yellow running through the gray.  Still, the contempt of the younger people bothered Ware.  He wanted to say, “He could probably beat you at singles.”  He and Martin had played many bitter matches and shared a certain bond, without actually liking each other.  Once they’d even had the same girl friend, although they only found out later she was two-timing them.  The woman beside him was right about the hair, though.  It made Bolinger look like a fool.  Ware had considered dying his own hair lately; if he did, though, he would have it done professionally so that it would look as natural as possible.

Arlene still had not arrived.  They had played in a few mixed doubles matches and made small talk.  She was about ten years younger, but had shown signs of interest.  Ware figured that she preferred men like him to those of her own age.  He decided to go to the kitchen for another beer, then come back and keep an eye out for her a while longer.  By that time the rooms would be more crowded and he’d have a better chance of avoiding Alice.

Gracie was supervising the college girls they’d hired to help with the dinner, while her husband, Jim, a pharmaceutical salesman, was bartending in the back.  Gracie seemed like a girl herself; her complexion required little makeup, her hair no chemicals.  Ware had long admired her and flattered himself that there was an undercurrent of attraction between them.  He lingered by the ice chest hoping to catch her eye and offer some witticism.  Two of the girls were chattering about their boy friends and whether or not they would go to “Kickers” later, which he surmised was a dance club.  Gracie nearly bumped into him as she carried out a tray of fresh appetizers.  “Hi, Mr. Ware,” she said as she passed.

He returned to the dining room.  Jim bustled out of the kitchen with a camera. Ware had always resented his energy.  He whispered to the piano player and began taking some photographs.  He motioned Ware over to be included with the threesome that had ridiculed Bolinger.  They had settled back by the wall and the woman quickly got up from one of the few chairs and pushed her hair back from her temple.  The pianist began a more upbeat number and Jim gave him a thumbs up before snapping several pictures.  The woman reoccupied the chair.  Out of the corner of his eye, Ware saw Jim gesturing to her and pointing in Ware’s direction.  She sprang up, vacating it for him.  Jim came over to Ware, placed a hand on his shoulder, and jerked his head toward the empty chair. 

“Better sit down while you can, buddy.  They’re a lot of people to come.”

“I’m not tired,” Ware said.

“Very well, my friend.”  Jim went on to the kitchen.  The woman remained standing, as if she had voluntarily vacated the chair.

Ware left the scene of his humiliation and after reconnoitering for Alice went into the living room.  A man in a wheelchair, flanked by an older couple whom Ware presumed to be his parents, was stationed in front of the mantle.  They did not appear to know anyone, so he introduced himself.

“Where do you know the Lindles from?” he said.

“I went to college with their son-in-law, Jim,” the disabled  man said.  “And yourself?”  He had a cultivated manner.

Ware almost said “I play tennis with Art,” then remembered the remarks about Bolinger and said, “I’ve had some business dealings with Art.”  Indeed, he had put Art in some real estate investment trusts a while back; Art had gotten hosed, but was so wealthy he had not held it against him.  “What business are you in?” his mother said.  She had a sharp eye and chinless face.

Ware winced over her bluntness, then handed her his card that said, “David L. Ware, The Financial Resources Group. Business, Estate, and Financial Planning.”

She was not impressed.  “Billy’s a lawyer,” she said, touching her son’s chair.  In its solidity, it reminded Ware of a throne.

“What kind of law do you—?”

“There you are!” Jim called out to the man in the wheelchair as he swept into the room with a couple in tow.  “When did you get here?”

Ware no longer was needed, so he backed away and almost bumped into Miller and the woman with the heavy breasts who had come with Alice.  A flutter of panic went through him, but he quickly observed that Alice was nowhere around.  Her name was Jean Katzen-something and she raised a petite hand.  The delicacy of her hand was incongruous with the rest of her and excited him.

“Where do you know the Lindles from?” Ware repeated.

Her answer was complicated, having to do with a mutual friend at a workplace.  Ware did not fully understand it and kept glancing over her shoulder to watch out for Alice.

“Isn’t this a wonderful party?” Jean said.

“Time’s suspended at a party,” Miller sang out.  “No matter how infinitesimal, there’s always the chance we’ll chime with someone.  We forget our years and swing on the floss of hope that hangs from heaven.”

Miller was drunk.  He had always been a bore, but ever since he had sold his advertising business and begun writing poetry, he had gotten worse.

“I couldn’t believe it when someone told me Dottie was sixty-five,” Jean said.

Ware agreed with her while wondering how old Jean was.

“Sixty-five used to be old,” Miller said.  “People go on much longer now than they used to.  You might say the Lindles are in the infancy of old age.”  He grinned in his loose-lipped way. “They’ll reach puberty by their seventies, adulthood at eighty.  Middle age?   Let’s see, that would be the eighties.  Ninety is the true beginning of old age.”

Jean had no response for this and Ware was wondering how he might get rid of Miller when a high-pitched laugh pierced through the noise.  Arlene stood in the doorway, warbling some excuse about having to work late.  The fur collar on her tan coat provided an avenue in which the eye could travel upward to a pretty, insipid face.  Some reddish-blond curls were teased over her forehead from under a woolen cap.  Art Lindle was hugging her and Bolinger already was circling.  Ware held back; he did not want to appear overeager.  He turned to Jean again, but her eyes brightened at someone approaching from behind him.

“There’s my friend Alice!” 

“Excuse me,” Ware mumbled.  Keeping his back to the direction of Alice’s approach, he moved around the clusters of guests until he reached a hallway and proceeded toward the back of the house.  He entered the first open door and found himself in the study.

It was quieter there.  Dottie Lindle and several of her friends were talking in low voices.  Ware was grateful for the respite.  The study did not appear to be a place for any serious work.  An antique desk was too small and the two-shelf library contained a Tom Clancy thriller, books on gardening and home improvements, a history of a president.  The knick-knacks placed around the room had the forlorn quality of objects that spend most of their time unobserved.  He noticed a photograph of a striking young woman.  The picture was in black-and-white, so he could tell her complexion had been perfect.  Her hairstyle reminded him of the scrollwork on the desk, with tight curls in perfect symmetry on each side of a head that was turned at a glamorous angle toward the photographer.  Her eyes held both a question and an invitation.  A beauty from another era.

“Who’s that?” he said to Dottie.

“What do you mean?” Dottie Lindle said.

Ware wondered if she had misheard him.  “Who’s that woman in the picture?”  He pointed at the photograph so there could be no mistake.

“Are you serious?  You—”  She pushed a fist at him.  “You know who it is.”  Her tone was whiny and petulant, like a child’s.

Ware was perplexed.

“That’s my wedding picture!”

“Of course,” Ware said.  “I’m sorry.  I wasn’t thinking—.”  But it was too late.  Dottie had turned away and was talking to her friends, freezing him out.  Ware compared the photograph to her face and found no resemblance.  Yet the blunder had been made.  Eventually, he would have to make it up to her.

He wandered back to the kitchen, found another imported beer among the domestics, and returned to the dining room, where there was no sign of Alice.  The hubbub had become a din and the room was hot from all of the bodies packed together.  Arlene was standing by the piano.  The pianist ended a popular version of “The Flight of the Bumble Bee” with a sparkling run, and someone requested “Where or When.”  As the group around the piano began to sing, Ware stepped up and threw his arm around Arlene’s waist.  At first she flinched, then, seeing who it was, smiled up at him.  She had an eager, humid expression and Ware decided that the evening might turn out all right after all.  He chugged some of the beer and sang out.  His voice was loud and true.  He squeezed Arlene’s waist as she applauded the pianist.

A bell tinkled.  Art Lindle stood in the doorway and asked people for their attention.  They ignored him, and he said,  “Please everyone, please.”  The noise of alcoholic conversation continued.  Jim and Gracie made shushing sounds and put their fingers to their lips.  The clamor subsided and the guests gathered around.  Ware spotted Alice on the fringe of the group across the entranceway and hid behind another guest.  Kitchen workers began placing plates and bowls of food onto a long table behind him; some took containers wrapped in aluminum foil down to the basement.

“We’ve now got some tables downstairs for those of you still young enough to negotiate the steps,” Art said.  After mild laughter, he went on.  “I think we should let Jim and Gracie know how much we appreciate all their work.”  Everyone clapped.  He turned toward Dottie.  “I want to tell you we’ve been married for thirty-five years and it hasn’t been easy.”  More laughter.  “Thirty-four,” Dottie corrected.  “Seriously,” Art continued, “Dottie’s more beautiful now than on the day we got married”—spattering of applause—“and I don’t know what I would have done without her.”  Someone shouted, “Speech, speech.”  Dottie Lindle cringed.  They insisted.  She wiped a tear from her eye. “All I can say is as long as I have to turn sixty-five this takes the sting out of it.”  Laughter, applause.  “You don’t look a day over fifty-five,” Miller called out and there were murmurs of agreement.  “Now enjoy your dinner, folks,” Art said, “and thanks for coming.”

Ware spotted Alice and Jean moving toward the dining room.  He had to act quickly.   He crooked his arm into Arlene’s and said, “Shall we go downstairs?”  She hesitated as she surveyed the crowd to see who was going where.   Only when Jim and Gracie and some of their contemporaries started down did she move.  As Alice crossed the room behind him, Ware stepped forward, using some other guests to screen himself from her.  Bolinger took advantage of this tactic to interpose himself between Ware and Arlene.

“You haven’t popped up at the club lately,” Bolinger said to her in his affected baritone.

“Oh I know, I’ve been so busy, first my sister visited from Milwaukee and then I started a new job, not exactly a new job—did I tell you—the hospital called and extended my contract even though they said it would be at least six months and I told them I’d have to see but of course I took it.”

Ware had heard this story a few weeks ago between matches.  Evidently she was confusing him with Bolinger.  No matter.  Her voice thrilled him.  That and the way she looked in her frilly tennis outfit.

The pitch of the basement steps was steep and Ware stumbled but caught himself in time.  “You okay?” said the fellow in the white shirt, grabbing his arm.  “Fine, fine,” Ware said.  He held on to the railing and picked his way down.  Card tables and folding chairs had been set up.  Arlene put her purse on one of the chairs and Bolinger draped his sport coat over the back of the one beside it.  Ware did the same.  He followed her to the buffet line and, at her insistence, passed her as she tarried over the salads.  He returned to their table.  As Arlene reached the end of the line, a man of about her own age came up and pointed to a table where another younger couple was seated.  They waved.  Arlene followed him and put her plate on the table.  She hurried back to the table where Ware already was seated and without a word retrieved her purse.

He was incredulous.  The man who had approached Arlene was undistinguished in appearance and common in manner.  How could she prefer him?  Bolinger returned with his food and said, “Where’s Arlene?”  Ware indicated the other table where the foursome was making a show of having a great time.  Bolinger let out a hideous chuckle.  Such reversals rolled off him, whereas Ware knew he would be outraged for days.

He bolted his food and left, wanting to be as far away from Arlene as possible.  He vowed to have nothing to do with her.  Not only would he ignore her for the rest of the evening, he would shun her at the club, too.  He took another beer out of the ice and paused in the wholesome atmosphere of the kitchen.  The back door was ajar and some smokers were on the porch.  He joined them, though he no longer smoked.  The cold front had pushed out the hazy city air and constellations studded the sky.  He found Ursa Minor and Draco.  The smokers took quick drags, returned to the warmth, and were replaced by others, but Ware remained there for some time, oblivious to the cold.  Through the kitchen window he could see the girls who would go to Kickers later that night.  He supposed he must seem ancient to them and it struck him that as one proceeded toward nullity, one measured oneself against those in nearby decades, keeping those much younger or older at a psychological distance, so that in effect one seemed to stay in the same zone.  Thus, he bore the same relation to the Lindles that Arlene bore to him, Gracie and Jim to her, the kitchen girls to them.  As a result, though in a different  phase of life, Ware seemed hardly to have moved, as if some internal gyroscope allowed him to maintain the illusion of youth.

When he returned to the party, some of Art and Dottie’s contemporaries had left.  Jim and Gracie’s crowd had taken over the dining room where electronic music had replaced the piano player.  Ware wandered into the living room, too tired and spent to worry about Alice’s whereabouts.  Yet he was not ready to go home and be alone.  He just wanted to be around the light and the voices a while longer.  He sank into an easy chair by the fireplace and turned so that he could view the scene.

First, he sensed their presence, then saw Alice and Jean wandering in from the hall that led to the study.  He had forgotten about her and now, when the evening was almost over, he had to face her.  As they came inevitably toward him, he prepared himself for the feigned shock of surprise, the forced affability, the assumed concern over each other’s well-being.  They came nearer.  Alice hung behind as Jean spoke.

“Good-night,” she said.  “I’m sorry we didn’t have a chance to talk more.  I wanted to introduce you to my friend Alice Borth before we left.”

Ware tensed as he tried to manage a conciliatory smile.  What if she were hostile, even after all these years?  She had every right to be. 

“Nice to meet you,” Alice said.

Ware was dumbfounded.  He studied her closely but saw only a pleasant, receptive smile, the sort she might offer to any stranger she might like to know better.

He hesitated, then said, “Nice to meet you.”

They walked away.  Stupefaction, astonishment, and relief mingled in him.  Surely, it was not possible—he had not changed that much.  Yet while Jean had uttered her name, Ware, in his amazement, had not given his.  He twisted his mouth into a peculiar, ironic smile.

The guests began their exodus, one group following another, as if obeying some migratory instinct.  Ware watched them:  the disabled man in the wheelchair and his parents; Arlene with her new friends; the three by the piano, neighbors, colleagues and others he had not met.  He felt as cold and distant as the stars.  If he and Alice could fail to know one another, then nothing held any significance.  Two decades from now he might not recognize Arlene, or Arlene him; the Lindles, if alive, would be slack and withered; Gracie and Jim would be in his zone.

The party was over.  Yet Ware did not move.  He knew that he, Miller and Bolinger would be among the last to leave and that no one would care.  He would make a tennis date with Art and congratulate Dottie on her anniversary, even kiss her on the cheek if she were no longer angry.  And he must remember to thank his host and hostess so that he would be invited again.

 

Edmund de Chasca's fiction and poetry have appeared in various literary magazines and anthologies, including The Chautauqua Literary Journal, The Georgetown Review, The Portland Review, Under the Arch:  St. Louis Stories, and elsewhere.  His story “The Lady of Altwater” appeared in GHLL XIV.  He is the author of John Gould Fletcher and Imagism, a literary history published by the University of Missouri Press.  He is Senior Editor of Boulevard magazine.