“If anyone sees that he can live better on the gallows than at his own table, he would be very foolish not to go and hang himself.”
for Kit Schluter
Another party, and the people who go to them.
My former boss, whom I distrust on a fundamental level, invited me to his retirement party held at his vacation home on the coast. He hadn’t used it since the summer. At first, when invited, I said no. I had to wash my hair that night. But later, as so often is the case, I said yes.
I was surprised, initially, by how many people attended the gathering. My distaste for him was not unique—most people in our office held our boss in contempt, and generally thought it unlikely that he would have people in his life outside of work. We were wrong. Our boss was a generous donor to his former university’s football program, and it seemed as if several generations of players and coaches were present, all thinking and talking about football, a sport for which I don’t care. Men would say, “Football?” to each other, and in response hear: “The football.”
We had reached a lull in the party. Perhaps only an hour had passed, and there was markedly less chatter than when I had first arrived. I spent most of my time eating tiny hotdogs and telling people I didn’t know anything about sports. They would smile sadly, as if I had told them I recently lost my calling in life, or that my dog had died.
A man named Joseph with broken teeth approached me. He said, “I want to show you a party trick that will make you never want to leave this place.” I told him I had very little to lose, and that a gain would be both unexpected and desirable at present. Joseph unzipped his skin, starting from a large copper zipper on his forehead, which I hadn’t noticed initially because of his wretched teeth. Underneath his skin was my dead mother. “See?” he said. I told him it was a tad too autobiographical, and somewhat puerile in nature.
“Oh?” he responded, “You think you’re capable of better tricks? Tricks that would lead the guests of this party to never depart—ever—from the place which they’re enjoying themselves so fully? So harmoniously? So effortlessly? Though, of course, there is quite a bit of effort. The cost of travel is getting pricier by the day. It’s hard to leave one’s room.”
“That’s true, but no,” I said, “It’s not that. I am capable of no tricks. I can barely tie my shoes in the morning. But a stunt as cheap and suburban as yours requires no respect on my behalf. You can take that up with the internet.”
Joseph’s first skin, dangling limply from his calves, was creating a puddle of brownish mucus on the floor. I could see it dripping towards the legs of the grand piano in the living room, which a football player had tinkered with earlier in the evening, admitting that he hadn’t played in quite a bit. He got through the first few chords of the Charlie Brown Christmas song (it was the season, after all), and meekly stopped on a bum note. One of his former coaches slapped him on the forehead and screamed at his wife to get them more treats.
The mucus had, at this stage, enveloped the entirety of the piano in its substance. Now the piano had transformed into my first boyhood crush, albeit in the shape of a piano. I believe her name was Yasmin, though I could be mistaken.
“This is really too much,” I said. “And I should get going.” It was true: I would be flying to Patagonia early the next day. I had been having dreams that I would soon die. The dreams were all different: sometimes an anvil would fall on my head from a high distance. Other times, I was inveigled into a terrorist plot which resulted in the destruction of the United States White House, and my body along with it. Either way—I feared death’s approach was coming, and coming soon. I drafted a list of things I wished to complete before my demise, and a trip to Patagonia was chief among them. The reason was simple: it was far away. I seldom want to leave my room. And so, a trip to Patagonia could only speak beneficently to my character, my belief in historical dialectics, and my hope that the human soul was, underneath it all, good.
My boss approached Joseph and me with a dumb smile. “A trip to Patagonia would prove nothing of the sort,” he said, and laughed haughtily. “My boy, it is true that you will die soon. At least that’s what my own dreams have told me. But to carry forth with this trip is simply ludicrous. You should spend your remaining days in the company of handsome women, like the one my piano has recently transformed into, and in excessive consumption of hard drugs, specifically cocaine. It shatters your heart, I hear, but that won’t matter much to you, will it.”
It was things like this that made me dislike him. What right had he to peer into my mind—sarcastic and witless as it was—and tell me what I should do? What I should think?
“Well, what do you want out of life, Sebastian?” Yasmin asked. The mucus dripped over the floor and approached me. “Really? You have such little time left.” Her kindness, even in that moment, was boundless. I had once purchased a pearl necklace—which I bought from a vendor on the beaches of Margarita—and given it to her, though we barely spoke. She accepted it without reproach, and continued our lifelong silence.
I breathed in deeply, tongued the remains of a hotdog stuck to my teeth. “It’s true that I am not doing well. I don’t know if I’ll ever be doing better,” I said. “And for that, I blame my mind jail. However, there are small changes I’d like to enact in my life. I should eat less hot dogs. I should drink alcohol only when an occasion calls for it, like today. I should get back on my medication, which I stopped taking because I disliked the idea that I had to take it to function in a standard fashion. Besides that, I look forward to the end of winter. When it is warmer out, things will be clearer to me. I will wake up and behave in such a way that I am crossing off the tasks on my list. I will walk to the park because it is a pleasant thing to do, and I won’t have planned it in advance. I’ll go to the park because I can, and want to. When I arrive, I won’t do anything but sit on a bench. Maybe I’ll smoke a cigarette, which I should stop doing, but I’ll allow it in this particular future, because it means that I am taking ownership of my pleasure. I will not feel suspicious toward the things which give me pleasure. I will drink a glass of water that I have placed on the kitchen table because I’d like that, not because it’s good for me. Afterward, I’ll move to a new city and go to the events held there. I’ll talk about things which are amiable, unpredictable, and filled with flowers that others will want to smell. I will want to smell them too, even though they are in my hand, not very far away from my nose.”
The room had stopped. Conversations of football were snuffed out like oxygen leaking from a candle’s flame.
“Puerile,” Joseph said, speaking with my mother’s mouth, though he was gathering up his first skin from the waist up, ready to re-zip, hopefully for good.
“Not likely to happen,” said my former boss. He was already on his cellphone.
“I’d have to agree with the boss man,” said Yasmin. “Too self-pitying. And I never did like you. Your mawkish gifts and ceaseless projections, etcetera.” She played a waltz with her teeth (those were the piano keys) and all in the room danced with vim: the people of football, my co-workers, my former boss, Joseph, even Yasmin herself.
Before I knew it, I was back home. It felt as if I had fallen asleep as soon as I opened my bedroom door. I had no dreams that night—which was a relief—and my bags were already packed. The rest of this story happened in three parts:
- In the morning, I hailed a cab to the airport. The driver asked me what I thought about the new song that was getting popular nowadays. “Puerile,” I said, “though, that’s not such a bad thing.” The driver spat out of his window. “That’s enough of your opinions for now. I was just trying to pass the time.”
- At the airport, a TSA agent dumped the contents of my bag into a plastic bin: my laptop, some clothes, a few novels, a notebook. She examined each. I handed her my passport again. “Your name sounds like a weather man. Like the ones on TV.” I told her I had heard that before. “No need to get testy,” she said.
- I boarded the plane, and after seating myself, the pilot greeted me. “Would you like to fly the plane today?” he asked. “I’m unfortunately lazy in temperament, somewhat suicidal.” I said that I would not, and that laziness was a virtue, depending on how one looked at it. People had written books about that. “That’s true,” he said. “Hey, this guy is funny,” he said, a little louder. “Hey everyone, check out the brains on this one,” emphasis on brains. He pantomimed a plane flying with his hand and then crashed it into the ocean, making a child’s sound with his mouth, thankfully his own. “Big brain man over there,” he said, walking back to the cockpit.