Saturday, March 12, 2016

For the Best

The Clavells weren’t the sort to play pranks, so the printed invitation to their annual Christmas party arrived after what Gerald and Charlotte’s son, Timothy, would call a “heads-up,” sent by e-mail, letting them know that both were invited to the event, at the Clavells’ apartment, on West Fifty-sixth Street. Gerald hadn’t seen Charlotte since their divorce, thirty-one years before, and this was the first time he’d seen her e-mail address. Whether she was on any social media he wouldn’t know, as he was not.

It was a rather jaunty message from the Clavells, who were not jaunty people. Intellectually, they were clear thinkers, and, as for jauntiness, Rorra Clavell had never totally recovered from a hip replacement years earlier, and her husband constantly fretted about why anyone would read a book on a Kindle. The brief e-mail message featured not one but two exclamation points, and offered no explanation as to why the Clavells had decided to invite them both. It seemed odd, but although Gerald did have some curiosity about how Charlotte looked and what she was doing, it did not keep him awake at night.

Gerald lived in a two-bedroom apartment on the East Side, next door to his oldest friend and former college roommate, Willers Caton, and his dog, Alexander the Great. A few days before the party, he happened to mention to Willers that he’d accepted an invitation to an event that Charlotte might also be attending. Without a second’s hesitation, Willers said, “She won’t show up. Watch.” Since Willers wasn’t usually a skeptic, Gerald asked how he could be so sure. To his great surprise, he found out that Charlotte and Willers had a psychiatrist in common, a Dr. Frederick Owls, known as the Owl, on Central Park West.

The day before the party, Gerald got a good jump on the season. He took a cab down to Kiehl’s, then worked his way back uptown, stopping at various stores, including the newly relocated Rizzoli. At each place, he picked out presents to be wrapped and mailed directly to his list of nineteen friends. (He counted his four cousins as friends, as he was not close enough to any of them to consider them family.) Outside the bookstore, he saw a man walking with a cane, his head bent in the wind. Was it Ned Farnsworth, his former accountant? He doubled back and managed to get a look at the man’s long, sharp nose as he was waiting for the light. He said Ned’s name, and the two warmly embraced. If such an embrace had happened with his son, Gerald would have had to suffer a series of violent thumps on the back, since young men who were affectionate in this way tended to act as if the other person were a baby in need of burping.

Gerald and Ned had coffee and caught up. (Ned had retired years before.) Ned said that he’d sold his beautiful Victorian upstate but was enjoying life on the twentieth floor of a new building in midtown that came complete with a dry cleaner’s, a lap pool, a gym he never used, and a concierge so eager for tips that he wrote thank-you notes for the simplest kindnesses—such as a resident remembering what team he wanted to win the World Series—then leaned them, in parchment envelopes, against the door to your apartment at night. Ned laughed heartily while telling him this. Years before, it had been Ned who’d recruited Gerald to pose in another client’s ad—almost to be mischievous, initially, but the ad had been so successful that Gerald had made a late career of modelling for others. As Ned gossiped, Gerald’s attention floated away. Might Ned also have been invited to the Clavells’? If memory served, he had been the Clavells’ accountant, too. But how to find out without risking making Ned feel excluded?

“Tell me the holiday party you’re most looking forward to!” Gerald exclaimed, thinking himself rather clever to have asked in such an open-ended way. “I don’t think I’m invited to any,” Ned replied, crestfallen. How rude of me, really unforgivable, Gerald thought, so he said, “Well, I’d like to invite you to dinner at my favorite Italian restaurant, on Fifty-fifth Street. Perhaps early January, when all the craziness has ended?” Oh, Ned said, he couldn’t eat much anymore; such an evening would be wasted on him, though he’d be happy to meet for coffee again. It would be something to look forward to. He produced his card, which Gerald pocketed with thanks. He found, to his surprise, that he had no card of his own in his wallet, so he jotted down his phone number on the back of a receipt. They parted with a firm handshake and a promise to meet again.

Late that same afternoon, Gerald had another thought. Or not so much a thought as a dream. He and Ned were swimming in the ocean, and he knew, though Ned did not, that a shark was lurking nearby. He tried to warn Ned, but some woman in the dream, an idiotic tourist, kept blocking his view, telling him that “Jaws” had scared an entire generation, and he really should shut up. However much he tried to look around her, or move to the side, no one seemed to notice him; nor was his shouting audible anymore. The dream ended abruptly when the heating turned on, with a series of little clicks, as it had been programmed to do, at 5 P.M. Gerald sat on the edge of the bed, sweating, distressed to have had such a vivid, disturbing dream, which he hoped was not a premonition.

The night of the party, Gerald nicked his cheek—with an electric razor, no less—and had to find the styptic pencil to stop the bleeding. He was perhaps more nervous than he’d thought. He showered, dried off, and dressed, making it a point not to care which of his white shirts he selected, except that regular cuffs seemed fine; hardly anyone still wore cufflinks.

Alonzo got him a cab with the first blow of his whistle. He might have walked to the party had he set out a little earlier, but it had rained all day, and more was predicted. Also, he didn’t want to arrive sweaty. It was early in the month for a Christmas party, though many people were sure to be out of town, or harder to get, closer to the holidays. His son had asked him to visit, but Seattle was too much for him in the winter—both the travel and the climate.

The Clavells’ lobby already had its Christmas tree up, resplendent in green and white lights, though it dangled no Christmas balls. At the top was an angel with sparkling white wings. She’d fallen forward a bit, so that it looked as if she were about to jump. “Darling!” Brenda Hampton called to Gerald, rushing in with a young woman she introduced as her goddaughter. They’d had their hair styled the same way, with a curly tendril hanging below one ear, and the rest neatly wound in a French twist. Each wore bright-red lipstick. “Brenda!” he exclaimed. The goddaughter extended her hand as if it were a gift. Indeed it was, with its slim fingers, absent of jewelry, its smooth skin, and glossy fingernails. He raised her hand and kissed it, which made her blush. “I’ll have to stick out my hand next time we meet, instead of hurling myself into your arms,” Brenda said, laughing.

by Ann Beattie, New Yorker |  Read more:
Image: John Gall