A man stood before a group of people. It was his party. He knew each person on the couch, the ones crossed-legged on the rope-rug, the others leaning against the walls near the framed black and white photos and the thumb-tacked poster prints. He even knew the guy, he didn’t invite, who had arms stretched up at threshold of the door as if he were waiting for his que. The man liked being in the center of the living room, for once. They were drinking the punch he had made. He’d had a few glasses before anyone arrived and he liked having them listen.
“My son, he died.”
“Completely wrong, Jake.” his friend shook his head. “You sound like you’re doing Shakespeare.”
“Say it with your hands out,” said Ruth. She sat on a big yellow pillow.
“Completely wrong,” his friend said again. “I once directed a high school production of Hamlet and I know what I’m talking about.”
Everyone laughed. The man’s friend, Donald Emate, had directed two Pulitzer Prize winners and was the recipient of a Tony. The man knew him before he was The Director, from their days growing up in the projects in Queens. Emate observed from a crouched position, like a catcher’s stance.
“All right. OK, let me finish my lines.” He took a deep breath and held out his hands like he was waiting to catch a medicine ball. “My son, he’s dead.”
Everyone burst out laughing again.
“My son is dying,” said Ruth.
“My children are missing,” someone else said.
“It’s about a son,” said the man.
“Look,” said Donald Emate, “a line is a line. You got to read it. But let’s make it sound alive.”
Some of the others smiled; they wanted to see the artist in motion, up close and personal.
“Listen, Emate,” the man said. They had thrown drinks, or worse, in each others face before.
“Holy Christ,” the woman next to Ruth sipped her drink to conceal her shock.
“Is this a pantomime. Is this a skit?”
“It’s very serious,” said Thomas, finally stepping from the frame he had made for himself out of the threshold. He wore a black silk shirt tucked into tight jeans and strode slowly across the center on the room, carefully and deliberate in the cowboy boots. He went to the table and poured punch from a soup scoop. “Anyone want some?”
“This cheese is delicious.”
“The breadsticks. Pass me a breadstick,” said Ruth, her lips were accentuated even in the dim light.
The moment Ruth leaned forward the man standing before his guests wondered what it would be like to make love to her. Her breasts were always firm in her tight blouses. The nipples were like stacks of coins. He could imagine her smell; the shadow the fabric of her skirt caved a dark triangle at her crossed legs, made more mysterious by the quick glimpse of black panties. She always wore black. When she bent low the top buttons of her blouse were open. The straps dangled from the soft curve of her bare shoulder just as it had been last summer in front of the newsstand when she touched his hand and said good-bye.
“Let’s all get serious,” said Thomas. He had a trimmed beard. Depending on how the light turned or the light shadowed, his beard showed its blonde and red highlights. “Here.” Thomas handed the man still firm in the center of the living room a fresh glass of his own punch.
He drank and cleared his throat. “My son, he died. He died because I left him alone.”
Thomas started to laugh, innocent at first, then loud. It was a contagious laugh that made everyone smile.
“I can’t help it.” Thomas said, “I just can’t.”
From down below on the rope-rug, huddled near the framed photos, leaning against the thumb-tacked prints he saw the smiles growing, then gagged grunts, until finally some full open-mouthed laughs were hurtled like bushels of rotted fruit. He finished off the glass Thomas had just served, refilled at the punch bowl by dipping the glass in and then took a seat on the floor.
“Oh, don’t be a baby,” said Ruth, pulling him by the arm. “We all want to hear you.”
Thomas clapped. The others followed. The man saw Thomas’s eyes. They seemed to know some hidden part of Ruth and he felt lonely. He wanted all of them to leave. Why had he asked such stupid fools to his party?
“Look,” said Donald, “forget about the audience. If your mind wanders for a second into the consciousness of the people you’re finished. The audience is behind your eyes.” Donald had never lost his street accent. Everyone thought it was just perfect on him.
“My son,” the man yelled from his seat on the floor. “My son, my son, my son…who killed him?”
Ruth cupped her mouth but couldn’t control her laughter after Thomas started again.
“I take this as a personal insult now. I won’t say it again.”
“Oh, forget about it, you should’ve realized, Jake.” Donald reached for some cheese. He sounded pissed-off, but to whom or what it was directed no one knew. Everyone went silent. Punch glasses froze; no one twitched.
Until Ruth leaned over to Thomas and said, “Isn’t he such a child?”
Thomas ignored her. “This punch is delicious.” He poured more into his glass.
“Why don’t you tell a joke,” said the man. “Why don’t you tell a joke, Ruth? A barroom joke, like you tell your customers.”
“Yeah, I’ll tell a joke. The joke is your party. That’s the funniest joke I’ve ever heard.” Ruth remained motionless.
No one spoke. It was quieter than a subway waiting for a train to start. Donald rubbed his eyes. They all watched him.
“If theater today, if the American theater, if the world theater, for that matter, for all it’s worth, would understand the sense of dilemma, if paradox and plight could be measured by the individual’s predicament to communicate a feeling with words, which by the limits of their definitions can only fail, there would be more Isbens and Chekovs, in the contemporary sense, than we could direct or produce.” For a moment he seemed introspective and intense. But soon he started to smile and everyone matched his smile and some laughed lightly.
“You’re a genius,” said Thomas. He looked around, raising his hand.
“Do I find a publisher? The words of Donald Emate at parties, a retrospective. I can see it now.”
“I wouldn’t buy it,” said Donald.
“How about it?” Thomas asked a brown-haired woman. Her father was the editor at the country’s second largest firm.
“I have no influence,” she said. Her voice was very low.
The man who owned the apartment said nothing. He looked at Ruth. He still loved her but his vision had changed.
“Do you have any music?” Ruth said when she caught him looking at her. “Every time someone stops speaking I can hear your toilet.” She got off the yellow pillow, brushed at the back of her skirt. “Where is the toilet anyway?”
Thomas turned, ready with a pivoting swivel on his heel and a swoop of his arm in the direction of the bath at the end of the railroad apartment. But Emate grabbed him by the elbow and that quelled him.
“Through the kitchen.” The man got off the floor to help one of his guests.
“Your kitchen is so tiny and the bathroom,” Ruth followed.
“Here,” the man said. They looked at the wooden tank bracketed near the ceiling above the bowl. A pull chain. A bathtub on legs painted and repainted. “It’s an antique, but it works .”
Ruth squeezed by, grazing against his chest. Her hand started to reach out as if she were going to grab his belt. But then she reached for the door latch. She looked up into his eyes and placed a strand of loose hair behind her ear.
“My son is dying.” Ruth smiled. “Really, Jake, you ought to stick with poetry.”
It was funny, he thought, his turn to laugh. She’d have to push him away if she wanted to eye-hook the door. He would have to hear her tell him to give up hope, that the way it had been between them since they met imaginary, an illusion on his part. He thought of a scented scarf tied to a pole. A breeze carrying a perfume across a plowed fields to the edge of dark woods.
“Well.” Ruth said. The loose strand of hair behind her ear again. And then she held her hand there, moved it up, cautiously toward his face. Those dark brown eyes, touched with the back of her fingers to his cheek.
“Well,” she laughed. So did Jake. “I have to pee. But if you don’t want to leave, I don’t mind an audience.”