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.

That Mocking Pretension

Another night, another party. Drinks are everywhere, left sweating rings on a dark end table, held loosely and sloshingly in argumentative hands, raised cool and collected to lips pressed together. The colours are bright as sin, sizzling like the jazz music that streams from the stereo, the necklines and hemlines high, the suits loose and flowing. Three men, in emerald green, garnet red, sapphire blue have cornered Leslie, pressed him back into a corner by the patio, and are trying to get his opinion on some political thing or another. He is bored, bored, bored, and cannot keep it out of his face or his voice. He doesn’t try.

He yawns, presses long fingers against his mouth politely. “It is not sadness that prepares us for tragedy,” he says, and chews on a cocktail onion. “Nor melancholy, nor suffering. Only the joyful contented are ready for revolution.”

The men are baffled and angry and leave loudly. He eats another onion, pleased at its sharp bitterness.

That Polite Disinterest

Outside the party Leslie and the girl stood quietly talking. It was a masquerade; Leslie wore a simple black domino, the girl a glittering gold cat’s eye that covered half her face. Leslie was leaning on the railing of the balcony looking out at the city. He wore a dark blue suit, midnight blue, blue as the night sky outside the city. The girl wore a vast red velvet dress that ballooned out behind her when she moved slightly. It was the same red as the sky over the balcony.

“It’s a lovely party,” said the girl.

“Thank you,” said Leslie.

“And, and, and, and you own all this house? This giant thing?” Keep him talking, she thought, keep him out here, keep him looking at the city.

“For a while now.” The lights of the city. Her dress brushed across his leg, and he moved imperceptibly away from her.

“Well, it’s a lovely party, just lovely. I swear I saw Madeleine just the other day, and she said…” She told a long, involved story with no point and no plot and he kept staring out at the city. I hope they got enough, she thought, and felt the lens of the long distance camera sweep over her body like a hand, and she shivered.

That Casual Hypocrisy

When they were lying in bed together, after the party, after everyone had gone home to cold beds and left them with stale smoke and spilled drinks and the close air of false gaiety, he lit a cigaret and stared up at the ceiling.

“Mmf,” she said. “Gimme a fag.” It was a command, the casual intimacy of the bed roughening her voice. It worried him.

He drew another cigaret from the pack on the nightstand and lit it with his. He handed it to her, without speaking. She drew on the cigaret, expelled a plume of smoke toward the ceiling. They mingled together, her smoke and his, and he watched them tightly.

“The beginning of jealousy is the fear of comparison,” he said, speaking to his feet where they stuck out beyond the welter of bedclothes. She rolled on to her side and stared at him. Her gin-and-vermouth eyes pressed into him. He repeated it, louder, twice, like a mantra. She snorted and rolled over. Suddenly he couldn’t stand her.

“Get out,” he said. He was very tired. There would be a scene, but he could already see beyond it to the peace and the calm that would follow.

That Young Gadabout

The party was a tremendous success, for all that nobody would clearly remember it the next day. Most people were still clustered around the magnificent bar that filled one end of the room, but by twos and threes others had moved along the length of the room, holding their various martinis, cocktails, and highballs.

Two men, wearing expensive and jazz-coloured suits, stood by the fireplace, listening to a third man talk.

“…and he was talking, quite out of the blue, of course, about how everything always works out,” he was saying. He was in his middle thirties, with hair swept back from a dramatically high forehead. He looked at the two gaily coloured men through the amber filter of a tumbler of whiskey. “I suspect him of faith, and faith is so unfashionable.” He put one hand in his coat pocket, thumb hooked outside like Edward G. Robinson, and rocked back on his heels.

The other two men laughed, appreciatively, cynically. It was not a fault that one might lay at their door.

The third man smiled, eyes hard and bright with malice and anger, and fingered the cross that lay hidden within the smart creases of his immaculate suit.