The party is finally picking up. The smiles have become manic, toothy, like the grins of boxing fans anticipating a particularly good fight, not caring who wins as long as they can see the blood. It's going to be that kind of night.
My stomach feels like it has fallen off of Blondie's balcony. I've been a reluctant visitor at enough of these parties to make an educated guess about the sudden change in attitude; either there's been a newsworthy tragedy which I haven't been informed of yet -- an assassination, an earthquake, a bombing -- or a pathetic and volatile guest is about to arrive.
None of these prospects interest me and I consider finding a quieter place to sit or -- better yet -- escaping the party entirely, but a slumming debutante has blocked the room's exit and is attacking the radio with her shoe. An elderly patron wearing a red bozo wig has sunk down into the couch and is being pulled apart from various directions, apparently unable to stand. Everybody is flaunting their drinks, and most of them are attractive, clean, stylish, and well-to-do. Most of them I know by reputation, some of them by name, but none of them intimately.
I just wish I could find Max, really.
Senator Worthy arrives, changing my corner seat from a cozy retreat into a fetid cul de sac. His toothy odour and desperate need for attention make me edgy. I know the dangers of encouraging him.
"Nightingale just phoned and he's bringing his girl," he says to me, hoping for a reaction. I give him my wide-eyed look of the stupid and unconcerned.
The Senator is not a nice man but he falls short of outright evil. The early-evening grapevine said that the party would be relying on HIM for entertainment -- which is why the other guests have been feeding him drinks all night -- but he has always been a mediocre fiend, trying hard to be offensive but lacking variety, doing the same things all the time. Like many of our elected alcoholics, Senator Worthy doesn't grow tired of his crude come-ons and crass jokes and late-night penis-waving.
But he was invited for a reason. Blondie doesn't pay professionals to sing or tap-dance or burlesque at her parties, she just invites selections of deviants, agitators, and the subtly drug-addicted. Part of the fun is guessing which one will go furthest over the edge, with bets on who's first.
Thrill-seekers and urban aristocrats enjoy this sort of thing. I personally don't want to be thrilled tonight, especially not by Nightingale and his new girl. I shouldn't have come at all and I certainly shouldn't have stayed. I'll never find Max, especially if he doesn't want to be found, and if I did find him I'm not sure exactly what I'd say and he'd probably run away anyway.
The static from the radio and the smell of the Senator's teeth is making my headache worse, so I excuse myself and accidentally spill my scotch on some anonymous person's shirt. "Whoa, Tiger!" yells the Senator, toasting me, grinning.
Out on Blondie's balcony the wind is vicious and a necessary tonic. I can't avoid the anticipatory chatter about Nightingale's girl, but by pleading feminine weakness I manage to secure a seat near the far end of the railing, close to the edge of the crowd. I huddle down, hug myself a bit, look out over the city. I can see three rooftop orchestras without even turning my head.
A new voice, sweet and naive and slightly twangy, says what the other guests are too tactful to mention. "Seriously, how do they do it? How do the two of them..." She stops, shy. She's a little lady who still smells of the countryside. Every party needs a farm-fresh waif the same way it needs a beast, a hero, and a cynic. I'm not sure which one I am at the moment.
The Short Actor grabs the girl's thigh and he promises a demonstration. "Want to know how they do it? Abby, darling, put your leg out like this and then lean back a bit. Pretend you're a hooch dancer--"
"Hey!" laughs a gaudy woman, feigning offense, but the Short Actor will not be distracted . He squashes the little farm girl against the railing and tries to force her head back. "Now pretend you're lying on the floor, prone, and put this bottle between your legs--"
"Don't, I don't wanna--"
"--and I'll be Nightingale moving in for the kill..."
She's not having fun. Tonight's hero, I come out of my huddle and say "Hey Dick, give the kid a break. She's never been to Coney Island. She's not your kind of girl."
He's surprised. There's a mixture of relief and disappointment in the air, but mostly the latter. He says, "I should be teaching YOU how to screw like a freak. Maybe you can get your boyfriend back."
The farm girl has slipped off the railing and darted back inside, so the Short Actor takes some of his pent-up aggression out on me. Among other things he says I'm too "loose" to be ruining other people's fun, says I make a living out of other people's misery, calls me a stuck-up elitist who needs a REAL man. He recites a brief speech about fallen women that I think I remember from one of his plays -- one I reviewed negatively -- then finishes with an absolute soliloquy of gossip: Blondie and I, Max and I, Nightingale and I. "You're giving ME a puritanical line about the sacred virtue of womankind?" He hisses. "That's rich."
Shrugs all around. I'm not interested in fighting with him. He makes a mocking evil eye sign that belies his upbringing and goes back inside, and after a respectable pause I follow.
I weave my way through the staring crowd, trying half-heartedly to corner Max. Everybody saw him walk through a door just a few seconds ago.
In the kitchen, Blondie's coloured maid is standing in my way and restocking the icebox, her single chore for the night. I ask her if she's seen Max lately and she shakes her head, frustrated, because I've asked her this already. She's never liked me, but I don't really believe she's ever liked anybody, at least not the sort of people I know.
Liquor bottles have completely taken over the kitchen. The abandoned diversions of the Blondie household are sitting atop a forgotten shelf: decks of cards, crossword puzzles, a horse-racing game, the dusty mah-jongh set. What happened to these normal pastimes, I wonder? Blondie and Max had decided that playing bridge wasn't exciting enough, long before I ever met them.
"Are we horrible?" I ask the maid. I don't know what I'm expecting to hear. "Me, Blondie's friends, her party guests. Are we horrible people?"
"I dunno," says the maid, muffled, her head in the icebox. "It's not my business."
I agree. It's none of my business either.
I hear a chorus of cheers; Nightingale and his girl have finally arrived. I hear Max out there too, suddenly audible after all this time, welcoming the newcomers, shushing the girl who's still trying to break the radio. Blondie laughs and makes kissy noises and asks them what they'd like to drink. With my head against the door I listen to Max and Nightingale, two men talking about booze and girl trouble. They're only inches away.
"Excuse me," says the maid, pushing her way past me, and she whispers something that I'm sure is uncomplimentary.