by Roland King
An irritating dinner party
|"The dying process begins the minute we are born,
but it accelerates during dinner parties."
-- Carol Matthau
When shaken with thinly-veiled irritation, a whiskey on the rocks sounds like a rhythmic sharpening of knives. It’s created by slow circular motions as the glass rotates, held casually in the palm of the hand. The amber liquor swirls the cubes against the sides, not quite grinding, but humming and biting against glass.
The speed of my rotations, powered by my wrist, but intensified by irritation, would have been perceptible to anyone, but then again “anyone” was not paying attention. “Anyone” was currently rambling on about his latest land acquisition. (“600 acres can you believe it!”) And all he had to do was displace a few dozen family homes that just would have ruined his view for the luxury compound of mansions and a golf course for the rich and famous. Oh the Roaring Twenties and the celebration of all that was excess while the horrors of poverty were on display mere blocks away.
Anyone’s greatest pride apparently was his insatiable appetite for status symbols. This was my first time meeting him and already I despised him. In the grand scheme of things he was inconsequential. So inconsequential in fact, that I never even remembered his name. He was simply the husband of his wife, whom I knew by reputation only. She was a reprehensible woman with a trail of peers that had been thrown under the proverbial bus and run over repeatedly while she honked the horn and aimed for the next victim with a veiled smile behind crimson lipstick.
I wandered from room to room fancying myself T.S. Eliot's character, Prufrock. And as I wandered from room to room, I heard the singsong line in my head “In the room the women come and go. Talking of Michelangelo.” Although Michelangelo would have at least been a mundane conversation I might have been interested in.
Instead each room was filled with conversations of insincere praise. Each person thinking their own accomplishments were the stuff of legend, their opulence a sign of strength and success, and their status nigh untouchable by those they feigned interest in with nods and exclamations. It was a masquerade party sans masks. Their faces were plastered with smiles, but they were ready to pounce like jaguars if their own way of life was threatened by someone more powerful, influential, or successful than they had become.
And as I hosted, it was difficult not to shake my head in disgust through my own fake smile. Did I forget to mention I was hosting this fine party of like-minded individuals? Yes, I too was one of these pillars of the community. However, I had climbed my way to the top for a very specific reason.
My story was not the same as this sordid congregation. Mine was one of pain and bitterness. I did not choose to be born into a family that did not care for children. But that was exactly the choice made for me.
My father was an alcoholic who worked at a steel mill until he was fired. This occurred when he became so drunk he could not operate the machinery properly, resulting in a man losing an arm in an unfortunate accident. As if his drinking was not bad enough, it worsened once he was let go. His new place of work became the fifth barstool from the door at the local pub. There he could be found every day and every night with occasional visits home to shower and sleep.
My mother was a woman who cared more for her own interests than the well-being of her family. My father was driven to drink in the first place by her infidelity. She had been engaged to another man when she’d become pregnant with me and then forced my father to marry her. When he became absent in our lives, she grew bored and fell into the arms of a man 20 years her senior who she hoped would pluck her from her existence in our clumsy, dilapidated hut of a house; thus elevating her to the opulence that she believed she was destined to inherit.
And her new husband did just that; but only for the warm-fleshed woman that would happily please him in bed. He had no interest in inheriting another man’s son. So off to boarding school I went. This began the long years of survival that would make me a chameleon amongst a group that were not even my peers.
At first, I stuck out like a sheep among wolves. The affluence of my stepfather had given me access to a school that I did not truly belong in, according to others. I was the “poor boy,” the “pity case,” the “boy with no place to be.” My short nicknames were often phrases, muttered as vindictive whispers. “Down dog” I would often hear with a hard elbow to my side as I was shoved out of the way. To them I was subhuman and had I actually been a dog they probably would have kicked me and laughed.
But as it is with school, there are always those that arrive after you. After my first year I was no longer the newest boy and climbing the ladder of status, albeit slow, was not impossible. I was something of a prodigy regarding chess and when the other boys in school discovered this they became intrigued. I became a curiosity to the older boys. Curiosity afforded me respect. And with this respect came the benefit of protection.
As the turn of the twentieth century passed, I had grown into a young man that was wholly different from the neglected child who had entered boarding school. As Henry Ford’s assembly lines sprang to life, I was on the verge of my own assembly line of ideas as my life’s mission became clear: I would beat these people at their own game.
Life can be chess-like when you approach it with a coldness that lacks empathy. This was how I survived. It was a long and slow game of practicing the same procedure as my enemies. I watched the wealthy and industrious throw others to the lions, and did so myself when necessary. The only difference was I had one simple creed: Never harm my own kind. I had no problem undercutting my opponents in the rat race of success, but I never once performed any business deal or acquisition that would affect the very same group of people that I had been born into.
Now as I absently tapped my glass of whiskey with my class ring with a smile that might have been genuine if not for the disgust in my heart, I was stopped by a gentle clearing of someone’s throat. It was the cook. Her name was Ingrid. She was the first person I had hired when I bought this mansion and she was the only person on my staff who knew my humble beginnings. As was the case with most of the help, she too came from my world.
“Sir, I have been through the entire list of spirits, and it appears we are missing a very large decanter of brandy. It’s not my place to accuse, but perhaps someone here has…?” She trailed off, allowing me to surmise what she was referring to.
I let a low chuckle escape my lips, “Ingrid, never have you laid eyes upon a larger congregation of crooks in one home; each and every one of them is absolutely capable. But rest assured. It was not stolen. I handled the brandy myself and used it for a little extra pizazz in the punch this evening.”
“Heavens! I’m glad to hear that, sir,” she said. Putting her hand upon my arm, she added in a low whisper. “That was a fine brandy…this must be quite the special occasion.”
“Only the best for my guests,” I replied with a smile, patting her hand with mine.
She took her leave and I walked towards the center of the ballroom. I was stopped by another guest, who with a somewhat mocking gleam in his eye remarked, “You let the help touch you like that?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well that was a rather forward gesture by your cook. The hand upon the arm? I realize now why you are still unwed, my good man! Benefitting from the staff more than you would a wife?” He tipped his own glass of punch at me with a conspiratorial grin. His eyes were swimming with inebriation already. His theory could not have been farther from the truth, but I laughed good-naturedly in a noncommittal way that neither confirmed nor denied his suspicions.
I edged my way farther towards the large table that held the various hors d’oeuvres, punch, and diminishing spread of empty glasses. I noted the swaying multitude, and the heavy aroma of sweat and alcohol. My guests were descending from affluent symbols to drunken wretches no different than my father. I took an unused cheese fork and chimed it against my glass.
“Ladies and gentleman,” I began, placing my whiskey upon the table. There was a general quietness that settled over the crowd except for a few that yelled out various exclamations of surprise and irritation at having to listen to a speech. The silence of the room quickly caused them to silence themselves. “Tonight has been an eye-opening experience to say the least. Never have I been able to gather quite as large a group of affluence as this. Let us think for a moment about the net worth of the individuals in this room. Together we could own the city of New York! This gathering is akin to the very pantheon of Olympian gods! Our wealth and power is monumental!”
There was applause and cheers to this. Glasses were held aloft.
“But, each and every one of us, with all our worldly possessions is worth nothing. You are worth nothing.”
Brows furrowed in the crowd and a murmur began to rise as they looked at each other.
“Each one of you is a truly despicable human being that I have spent my life loathing but somehow forced to coexist with. I am not one of you. In fact, none of you know my humble beginnings as the poor son of a steel mill worker.”
Someone dropped to the floor near me clutching at her heart. Others clamored to her aid as she began to convulse.
“Ignore her.” I said. “It’s far too late for her. And for all of you. Her system is weaker than the rest of you. This fantastic punch you’ve all consumed has a wonderful brandy to give it its flavor. A very special brandy that I personally laced with arsenic. Know as your draw your last breaths, that a poor man was your undoing.” In the time it took me to finish the sentence, another ten people had dropped to the floor. Panic erupted, but it was too late. Within two minutes the room was a silent pile of well-dressed bodies.
Ingrid walked into the room and uttered a scream. I leaned against the table, feeling exhausted and grabbed one of the empty glasses. “Ingrid,” I said, “You must leave now and bring the authorities. There is a note in my jacket pocket with a written and sealed confession for everything you see in this room.”
“But why sir? Why would you do such a thing?” She raised a hand to cover her mouth and tears streamed from her eyes as she looked around.
I was silent for a moment as I scooped the empty glass in the punch and paused “Because there are 132 people in this room and not a single one would have shed a tear for you if it was you lying here on the floor instead.” I raised the glass, swallowed, and took a breath. “Now go.”
She left with a swish of her apron and I waited.
Word Count: 1993
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