Edwin Balder followed his friend, Lawson Thomas, into George Pollard Jr.’s living room, a living room which used to belong to him and Natalie nearly a thousand years ago. Or it felt like a thousand years ago to Edwin. And maybe it felt as old to the other people in the room, judging by the way some of them looked; most of the people sitting on or around Pollard’s still-collegiate furniture, their faces and bodies horrendously gray and battered by life before the age of forty. Perhaps that was just Edwin’s take on them, as he'd known most when they were young and lithe, full of life and ideas, and when they hadn’t yet settled for life’s typical, daily banalities. America was such a mendacious place for having people believe that they would be forever young, Edwin thought, casting a glance around the room. But then Henry De Witt handed his drink to his wife, Mallory, another of Natalie’s friends who now hated Edwin for whatever reason that she had, and came up to shake his hand. Henry was drinking vodka and soda with a sliver of lemon. He had been doing so for at least twelve years.
“Hello, Balder,” De Witt said as he shook Edwin’s hand.
“It’s Edwin,” Edwin said, shaking De Witt’s hand back. “What is with everyone using each other’s last names at this party tonight? Have we suddenly joined a beer league?” He nodded toward Mallory who smirked and held out Henry’s drink to Edwin in a pleasant yet formal manner. It was much better than their last meeting where Mallory had told Edwin to get fucked while taking a sobbing Natalie up the stairs to the guest bedroom in their New Jersey home.
“I see you haven’t lost any of your wit,” Henry De Witt said.
“My humor spills forth like a broken nuclear reactor into the green sea.”
No one laughed at this timely yet inappropriate joke. Edwin should’ve known having been around this crowd off and on for nearly two decades. People at parties such as this did not mock world tragedies so much as sit and contemplate what they could’ve collectively done to have stopped them, as if a bunch of artsy vegans could’ve stopped the genocide in Rwanda back in 1994 with nothing but pluck, determination, and falling packages of extra-firm tofu. Ugh, Edwin hated being amongst this crowd. They made him feel old and tired. And Edwin wasn’t old, just oldish.
All the same, he didn’t like his late thirties. They were an odd kind of old. Edwin felt as though he still connected to the Molly Brown’s and Matt Joy’s of the world, when, in fact, he was becoming more and more invisible to them and their ilk by the day. Yet he certainly wasn’t ready for mahjong at the retirement home. Edwin certainly felt no connection to his peer group, this collection of has-been’s still trying to get their film projects off the ground, their music just right for popular consumption; he didn’t jell with the types who went to bars in the middle of the afternoon for mommy and baby happy hour. These people were deluding themselves, Edwin thought. He was currently standing the bastion of the deluded.
“Is that a Japan joke?” Henry asked.
“More of a dig at Three Mile Island,” Edwin said, knowing full well that there was no sea near Three Mile Island. “What can I say? It has already been confirmed this evening that I’m retro.”
“I said old,” Arlene said, coming in with Edwin’s bourbon on the rocks.
“Ah, sweet sustenance,” he said, taking the drink and having a mighty pull on it.
“Let me guess,” Henry said, “scotch and water on the rocks.”
Edwin squinted and then smiled, took his drink from his lips. He hated the informality between himself and Henry De Witt. “Actually I gave it up tonight.”
“I am a man of whimsy, De Witt,” Edwin said. “If you cannot keep up with me, you best step aside with the other oldies in the room.”
“We didn’t have scotch,” Arlene said to Henry De Witt.
“Yes, thank you for reminding me of my unwelcome state,” Edwin said. “I’ll be sure to send my thank you card, posthaste.”
“You know I always thought that you and Natalie were going to settle down and have kids like Mallory and I did,” Henry said. Edwin cringed. Arlene cringed. Lawson Thomas cringed from where he was sitting, bookended by Mary Baldacci and Thomas Nickerson. Even Mallory cringed from her place on George Pollard Jr.’s offending couch.
“And why in God’s name would you think that?” Edwin said.
“I don’t know. You two were good together.” Edwin wondered where in the hell Henry De Witt had been for the last two years. Did he not remember that night of terror in his bland New Jersey Home?”
“We broke up….like two years ago.”
“I know.” De Witt put his hand on Edwin’s shoulder. “I was just saying.”
“Well, say something different, you soused fiend,” Edwin said, brushing De Witt’s hand off of his shoulder. “At the very least don’t wish children on me.”
“Why not? Kids are great.”
“Sure, if you have a farm to plow or a coal mine that needs to be…well…mined,” Edwin said. “Other than that, I don’t see the use for them.”
“I love my kids,” Henry said. “They fulfill me.”
“More than your paintings used to?”
“My kids are my art.”
“Good, Christ, you hoodwinked fool!” Edwin shouted. “You could put two retarded monkeys in a room together, and the chances are pretty good that they’ll conceive. But you were a painter, a damned fine painter if I say so myself.”
Arlene turned to an increasingly agitated Henry De Witt. “I’ve never seen him complement anyone.”
“Are you calling me and my wife retarded monkeys, Balder?” De Witt asked.
“There you go with the beer league speak again. Call me Edwin,” Edwin said. “And no, I was not calling you and Mallory monkeys.” He paused, took a drink on his bourbon. Oh, why not? Edwin said to himself. “I would never insult retarded monkeys in such a vile fashion.”
Henry De Witt pushed Edwin and his drink fell to the floor, just as people rose to break them up. After stumbling a little and, sadly, smacking into poor, innocent Arlene, Edwin regained his footing and laughed. Henry De Witt was so thick. He should’ve seen that joke coming from a mile away.
“Same old Edwin,” Mallory said, as she pulled her fuming husband away.
“I was joking,” Edwin said. He looked at Henry, who was now sitting on that couch, vodka and soda place firmly back in his hand. “You left yourself wide open for that one.”
“My kids are my art,” was all that Henry De Witt would say.
“I’m sure they’re a couple of Picasso paintings,” Edwin said, before Lawson Thomas grabbed his arm and pulled him over to his small cluster of friends. Arlene picked up Edwin’s drink off of the carpet but left the small bourbon stain where it was. She came over to join Edwin and company.
“You certainly have a way with people,” Arlene said.
“De Witt is a dolt,” Edwin said. “He’s been a dolt for over fifteen years. Back in the day we used to all go out for coffee, and whenever De Witt went to the restroom we would put the worst kind of things in his coffee, condiments, articles of food, chewed napkins. We did this each and every time, and each and every time poor, foolish De Witt would come back to the table and have a sip on his coffee expecting it to not be contaminated.”
“It was funny back then. Wasn’t it, Lawson?”
Lawson laughed. “Yeah.”
Mary slapped Lawson’s arm. “I can’t believe you did that to him.”
Edwin looked at his old friend. “The old ball and chain already giving it to you, I see?”
“Shut up, Edwin,” Lawson said. He turned to Mary. “That was years ago, Sour Bear.”
“Now you’re using that as a term of affection?”
“It worked for us,” Mary said.
“Well, you have me to thank for it,” Edwin said. He turned back to Arlene. “All the same, De Witt rubs me the wrong way. All of these aging hipsters do.”
“And what are you, my man?” Lawson asked.
“Adrift. Actually I’m the assistant manager of the Insert-Massive-Conglomerate-Here invoice processing plant.”
“I’m the assistant manager, Edwin,” Mary said.
“What?” Edwin thought about it for a moment. “I thought that you were the secretary.”
“You’re the secretary.”
“Hmmm, that must be why old Chase keeps asking me if the coffee is on in the morning, and why he scours my desk for the daily mail. Who makes the coffee?"
“I do,” Mary said.
“Well, who gets the mail?”
Edwin patted Mary on her knee without cringing or feeling sick. “You need a raise my dear.” He turned back to Arlene. “Perhaps when Ms. Baldacci here becomes manager then I can move up in the chain of command.”
“They’re closing us,” Mary said.
Edwin turned to her, aghast. “They are? Why wasn’t I told?”
“There was a memo, Edwin. A couple of people from corporate came down.”
“Where was I?” he asked.
“In the bathroom,” Mary said, “reading McSweeny’s.”
“You told her about that?” Edwin said to Lawson.
“It was obvious,” Mary said. “You keep it on your desk, and it’s always rolled up in the back of your pants.” She laughed. “I used to think it was a Playboy.”
“Now I’m offended,” Edwin said. “But are they really closing us?”
“Have they no clue what the economy is like?”
“Yes,” Mary said. “That’s why they're closing us.”
“My kids are my art!” Henry De Witt screamed from across the room.
“Paint away, De Witt!” Edwin shouted back. He turned to Mary. “What ever will we do?”
"I can't go on the dole," Edwin said.
“You could go back to teaching,” Lawson said.
Edwin rose. “How dare you even suggested that, you beast! How dare you even assume that I’d go back into that citadel of failure, and try to impart my knowledge upon those slobbering Philistines!”
“It was a suggestion,” Lawson said.
“Teachers disgust me.”
“I’m a teacher.”
“Consider myself disgusted with you,” Edwin said.
“Teaching is a rewarding profession,” Mary said.
“This from the assistant manager in a failing invoice processing plant,” Edwin said to Arlene. Then he looked at Thomas Nickerson, who hadn’t said a word since he’d sat down. “What do you do for a living, Cabin boy?”
“I’m a chef,” Nickerson said.
“I don’t think they call them chefs at McDonald’s,” Edwin said.
“Very funny. But, seriously, I’m a real chef.”
“At Hunter’s Steak and Ale house.”
“I don’t think frying up a t-bone makes one a chef.”
“We serve other things,” Nickerson said.
“Salad. Do you enjoy your work?” Edwin asked.
“Most of the time.”
“I want to kill myself when I get home,” Edwin said, which was the most honest thing he’d said to someone in a long time. It was a pity, he thought, that it had to be Thomas Nickerson of all people.
“That’s why you should listen to your friend and get back into teaching,” Arlene said, tugging on Edwin’s pants to get him to sit back down.
“Et tu, Eddie Vedder?”
“My kids are my art!” Henry De Witt shouted again. Edwin and company looked over toward the De Witt’s and saw that they were putting on their coats.
“Leaving so soon?” Edwin asked. "Or just stepping out for some coffee?"
“They’re better than any Picasso! They beat any Van Gogh!”
“I’m sure they’re regular El Grecos.”
“They’re better!” De Witt said, continuing to shout. Some of the other guests from the party crowded into the living room to watch. Edwin made special notice of the way that Charles and Shannon Shorter looked at him with contempt. Oh well, what were two more aging failures removed from his life? “My kids are like gold.”
“Your kids should be following canaries out of mines,” Edwin said. “At the very least they should be sweeping floors of a slaughterhouse.”
Henry De Witt, an ardent vegan, went for Edwin Balder a second time, but was restrained by the aging, black militant poet, Barzaillai Ray and the host and birthday boy, himself, George Pollard Jr.
“You just couldn’t behave, could you, Balder.” Pollard said.
“I yam what I yam,” Edwin said.
“Why don’t you leave, dude.”
“With pleasure.” Edwin began walking toward his hateful mob. He pictured them all with torches, for he felt like a Frankenstein monster in that moment. He felt like the only person who had any conception of the dark reality that was this long and arduous life. “Far be it from me to be anywhere that doesn’t serve scotch. Many happy returns, Pollard.”
“Go home, Edwin.”
“Nice couch,” Edwin said, as he moved through the small crowd.
“Thank you, Edwin,” Mallory shouted. “Thanks a lot for doing this to us tonight. You know the trouble we’ve had with the kids, especially Jamie.”
Edwin stopped in the archway between the living room and the bedroom of sin. A clock had once fallen on Natalie’s head in that very same spot. She had raced into the living room to tell Edwin something, something which he no longer remembered, and the pounding of her feet had unhinged the clock from the wall and it came right down on her head. “I’m sorry, Mallory. I forgot that one of your children was a juvenile delinquent.”
“She’s developmentally challenged, you asshole,” Shannon Shorter said to him.
“Whatever,” Edwin said, using the parlance of our times.
“No wonder Natalie left you.”
“Oh beat me with a dead horse why don’t you”
Shannon Shorter grew and evil smile on her face. “I'll be I know something that you don't know."
"What? That your video art is crap?"
"She’s back,” Shannon said.
“Natalie?” Edwin said, although whom else could she mean. “Back in New York?”
Shannon Shorter smiled. "It's too good to tell you."
"Well, I'll just have to ask her myself."
“She doesn’t want to see you.”
“Oh.” Edwin stared once again at his collection of old friends and enemies, trying his best not to process the knowledge that Natalie Presley was back in New York, living somewhere just beyond his reach. Then he left the room.
Seth Weeks was sitting alone in the kitchen when Edwin went in there to retrieve his coat. Seth was a dumpy sort. He wore outdated glasses with thick frames and bulbous lenses. They were a good match for his receding hairline and patchy beard. Seth had always been a non-entity amongst their crowd, a silent hanger on with a high-pitched voice who never offered a comment, criticism, or judgment. He had no artistic inclinations, except a vague precludtivity toward Woody Allen films, which Edwin chalked up to Seth’s homosexual attraction toward nebbish Jews. Edwin used to like him for those very reasons but, in the moment at hand, hated Seth Weeks for his moderate disposition, and love of witty films without carrying an ounce of wit on his own person.
“Hello, Seth,” Edwin said, putting on his coat. “Seems I’m the belle of the ball once again.”
Seth did not laugh. Edwin had never seen Seth Weeks' laugh in all of the years of their forced acknowledgement of one another. “Hello, Edwin.”
“And what have you been up to?”
“Working, I presume?”
“I manage a bookstore down by Brooklyn College,” Seth Weeks said.
“Anyone special in your life?”
“I have a certain someone.”
Edwin smiled. “You know, Seth. It’s even okay to be gay in the military now.”
Seth Weeks had no reaction to this. “Natalie’s back.”
“Yes,” Edwin said. “And if you weren’t who you were, I’d be thinking that someone grew a set and was trying to get my goat.”
Edwin Balder left George Pollard Jr.’s apartment and made his way down the rickety stairs. He passed the cabbage and ass sweat smell of Isaac Cole’s apartment and made it safely outside on to the street. Edwin looked at the spot where the dog had been murdered and he started panting. He thought that he was going to pass out. Then Arlene came outside.
“Edwin,” she said. “Edwin, are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” Edwin said. He composed himself and turned to face her. “Tonight was par for the course for me.”
“I’m sorry about Natalie.”
“It was bound to happen. She’s like the rest of them in there,” he said, pointing up to Arlene’s brother’s apartment, “foolishly devoted to a city that has eaten her up but has yet to spit her out.”
Arlene pulled a piece of paper out of her baggy pants. “Here’s my number.”
“Because I like you,” she said. “I mean, I think underneath all of this mouthy business, you’re a pretty decent guy.”
“There are mounds of opinions to the contrary in that apartment behind you,” Edwin said.
“Well, Lawson likes you. And as for the rest of them…I guess I feel the way you do about them.”
“And that is?”
“Tired and old when I’m around them,” Arlene said.
Edwin smiled and took the number. “It seems you've read my mind. And I’ll be sure to call, despite your family line. Perhaps you can come by and we can have a drink and listen to Rhapsody in Blue.”
“Do you say that to all of the girls?”
“I do,” Edwin said. “I really do.”