An opening was created in the wake, and the trapped man acted on it. The flow of bodies did not lead to the front door but to a secluded hallway. Low light in a book-lined room suggested a back way out, and in peeking around a shelf Aloysius was glad to see glass doors facing onto a veranda. In his escape, he stumbled over a piano. The baby grand was out of tune, but not so out-of-tune to prevent him from pecking at a few dusty keys. It was rare when he had access to a piano, though not rare for him to abandon a party of pleasure to entertain himself elsewhere on the premises.
Honestly, the solitary man had no interest in forming a friendship with Jacques; and given his history of not reciprocating social interest, the few friends he did have were lost mainly through attrition. When inclined to socialize, Aloysius was better with small groups. It was truer to say he desired company more than friendship, for he found it hard to distinguish between his genuine social need of others and his occasional need for an audience. That he preferred his own constructive company was clear, for the painter found other artists too idle to endure for long. Parties were by definition exercises in idleness, and idleness was neither a vice nor virtue he possessed.
Aloysius was at the keyboard mere minutes when a woman darkened the glass doors. She tapped a pane, wanting to be let in, so the intrigued pianist rose to comply.
Swishing into the unlit room with a scratch of tulle and satin, she unhooked a high heel and clapped it loudly against a ledge of masonry; a mud clot flew off to land inside the fireplace screen. “Are you a groom or a pallbearer in that monkey suit?” she asked.
Aloysius had forgotten about his silly tuxedo; the alcohol spoke for him. “Depends on your point of view.”
Light from the veranda muddied the young woman’s silhouetted features, but her smile was as discernible as the improbable pair of black-rimmed glasses she sported. She nudged the hefty spectacles back up her nose before inquiring, “Do you know Heart and Soul?”
The duet was a party standard; Aloysius played dumb.
The brunette slipped back into her shoe and slid across the piano bench, banking into him like a perfumed, silk pillow. She proceeded to bang out a formidable rendition of Chopsticks. “I took just enough piano lessons as a child to drive the mice and roaches from our house,” she informed.
Drawn into her easy patter, he observed, “A more effective form of fumigation than dance lessons.”
“I was too tall for dance,” was her lament.
“I was too chesty for the cello,” sighed he.
The recitalist bounded up in the next breath, keeping her straight face, and gestured to the door. “Would you care to keep me company while I look for someone?”
Nodding, the blindsided man fell obediently behind her rustle of strapless formalwear. (It was only in the half-light of the hallway that he realized the costume was a wedding dress, minus a train.)
She did not so much merge into the party as descended on it from a silvery cloud. The smoky light remained poor, but there was enough of it for the escort to realize he had been trading one-liners with a woman of uncommon beauty. She glanced back at him with beguiling blue-green eyes before setting a course for someone in tea-stained mummy wraps.
Wanting to catch up, Aloysius purposefully lagged behind.
His first impression of her was one of a bolting bride, but seeing her glide serenely across the room, reducing everything around her to backdrop, made him think she had stepped off a freshly finished Gil Elvgren canvas, one portraying a nubile heroine charging social ramparts in a charm offensive. Intoxicated on this thought, the painter studied the glistening brushwork from a distance: how the flick of a round caught the curl of an eyelash, and the bold swivel of a filbert mimicked the zigzag of her opalescent dress.
She was quickly frowning and coming back to where he stood. “You’re not keeping up.”
Her skin resembled milky alabaster. Its complexion sent him (in his mind, at least) delving into his tackle box for tubes of paint: rose madder, arylide yellow, ultramarine blue, zinc white… He drew in the stuffy air to chase away his late stupefaction. “Wasn’t that him?” he asked. “The person you were looking for?”
“Come,” she said, entwining a silk-gloved arm around his rental sleeve. “Keep up.”
They brushed a table covered with toppled plastic cups. The bride picked up two empty ones and sniffed them. “These smell clean,” she declared on handing one to him.
His cup smelled of beer. “Did the scullery maid run off with the good crystal?”
Miss Elegance had stepped out of character to eye the staircase, leaving him, as had Jacques, to momentarily heel. She tugged again on his thin frame. “We need something stronger than beer.”
The beauty waved off a volley of crass overtures with her wand-of-an-arm, and started up the steps; the painter was inconveniently thinking about more brushes on the ascent: synthetics and sables for her skin, a coarser hogís hair brush for the strong dark line of her hair.
Someone fell against them coming down the stairs, practically pushing them into an embrace. The dithering man (a third person not wearing a costume) appeared lost. “I thought it was the black monolith from 2001,” he mumbled, “but itís not.” He continued his clumsy descent, evidently expecting no reply.
Aloysius was again bouncing around among the shadowy, half-naked characters that owned the second floor, although his easier companion was not shy about moseying up to a fellow slouching against a wall. He wheezed through small nostril slits in his plastic Casper the Friendly Ghost mask, and ogled a powder-wigged cutey popping out of a bodice. The bride queried him. “Is there anything stronger than beer?”
Pulling a sloshing bottle out of his red-splattered lab coat, the man thrust it to the ceiling. “What are you going to give me for it?” His exertion succeeded in throwing him off-balance, whereupon he tumbled comically to the floor and watched his Peppermint Schnapps roll away.
The enterprising woman picked up the bottle and poured a generous amount of beverage into the borrowed cups from a bureau. The alcohol was then returned to the passed-out partier’s pocket. She dragged her new friend along to a door that showed promise. “It’s empty!” she proclaimed enthusiastically.
When the door closed them off from the rest of the celebration, Aloysius braced himself against the darker, quieter space. They had traded one remote part of the house for the other, and he suspected whatever plan had been in the works was scrapped.
Within seconds his eyes adapted to the faint light, leaving him to puzzle at his companyís wincing on each slurp of her drink. He was thrown by the self-inflicted torture.
She detected a critical cast to his look and threw up a screen: another withering smile. “Will we be discovered?” she asked slyly.
“Discovered by whom…?”
To this the companion gave no reply, although the silence was a kind of reply; Aloysius stumbled to rephrase his question, but was spared.
“Are you a graduate student?” charged her second, less ambiguous question.
“I guess you could call me an artist-in-residence.”
She glowed with approval. “I’m an MFA candidate, myself.”
“What’s your area?”
Nudging her glasses again up her nose, she regaled, “Photography. But that’s only to float me until my career in the service industry takes off.”
“A double-major is wise.”
The impromptu couple continued to stand toe-to-toe in the shadows, rashly drinking their plunder without rhyme or reason. Aloysius was not sure why both were in a hurry to become drunk, but wherever the girl was going he wanted to come along. “Maybe we should eat something,” he suggested. “I saw some Vienna sausages on stale crackers downstairs.”
“Iím a vegetarian.” She hiccupped, adding, “most of the time.”
He spoke with conviction. “If you’re going to be an artist, then you need to eat meat.”
“Wasn’t da Vinci a vegetarian?”
“And how many works of art did he make in his lifetime? Not many, as it turns out. Meat gives you stamina.”
Pleased by the turn of conversation, the woman blurted her thinking. “We look like we belong together on a wedding cake.”
Aloysius looked down at his too-small rental. “I look like I’m due in small claims court tomorrow to sue the bastard drycleaners who did this to my suit.”
The woozy bride snickered on her next gulp. She dropped to the edge of a sturdy four-poster bed, but missed its broad target to land indignantly on her bottom in the floor. The misstep made her double over with laughter. “I don’t know where my ass begins and ends in this dress!” she cried.
Fumbling to lift herself with his feeble assistance, she was too debilitated by her fit of giggles to rise. She was resigned to sit it out, and with pained side-glances at her teetering groom extending a hand. The sight of him in the midgetís tux sent her careening to the rug with more snorts, which made her guffaw all the harder.
Aloysius dropped to his knees to create a manageable center of gravity, although the girlís head was now somehow under the bed skirt. He pulled at her ankles, trying to dissuade her from crawling further under the bed. Flat on her stomach, she shimmied like a Jell-O mold slathered with whipped cream, conveying in the broadest strokes the shapely body concealed beneath the billowy satin.
“I think we can get out this way!” insisted she.
Aloysius inadvertently pulled off one of her expensive-looking high heels. It flew over his head to land somewhere in the dark room. He was abruptly on his back, swimming. The beauty straddled him with a hard stare, although her feathery cleavage got him thinking about blending brushes.
“Where’s my shoe gone?”
Her breath was peppermint candy, and hardly the smelling salts he required. “I’m looking for it on the ceiling,” he informed her, “because it’s the only part of the room that isn’t spinning.”
She started snickering again, threatening to collapse on top of him. A change of headwinds overtook her however, and left her to yelp, “The limo! I forgot the limo!” The young woman clambered to her feet and brought him up behind her. She wavered before careening into the side of the bed a second time. “Shit!” Her hand rose to cover her mouth, as if to call back the expletive.
Aloysius was slow grasping the gravity of her reaction. He followed her bleary stare to the top of the mattress where, unbeknownst to them both, a darkly attired man slept. The painter recognized him instantly as the sensory deprivation character from downstairs. He was still wearing his getup, and seemed impervious to the coupleís antics.
For the briefest moment the graduate photographer appeared to be swerving toward another bout of giggles, but a bedpost steadied her for a sober proclamation. “I need to pee before we leave.”
The bride hobbled on her one remaining heel to the bedroom door. Opening it, she stepped over an amorous couple stretched out on the hallway floor, yet paused to size up the womanís shoes. A heel was hastily snatched from a foot, and the wobbly groom was used for support while the marauder wiggled into it. She then moved to another door that was either a bathroom or closet, and charged in without knocking.
A young man, with painted-on five-o-clock shadow, was looking out a bathroom window. He was trouser-less under a trench coat, and mused on cue. “I used to know a girl who lived in that house across the street.” Releasing the ends of his outer garment, a large cylindrical balloon, filled with helium, rose between his legs. Flesh-colored pantyhose held it in place, as well as two smaller round balloons doubling for testicles. “She used to live there,” he explained, pointing at the window with his freakishly large member, “in that attic apartment.”
The bride neither blushed nor recoiled when the fellow turned to face her, but commented dryly on the reinforced nylon toe of the hosiery. “I see you’re not circumcised.” The bathroom door was unhurriedly closed on the bizarre scene, and the young woman once more dissolved into laughter.
There was no rejoinder Aloysius could add to the unscripted moment. He watched her collapse again to the floor, though their dynamic was different from what it had been in the private bedroom. He felt embarrassment, but could not say if it was for her or him. Surely she laughed more at his nonplus reaction than at the obscene joke. The groom was slow lending a hand to pull her up, and felt the weight of her body intrusively in the hoist. Her skin briefly dulled, and the lace and needlework of the dress passingly resembled something out of a grandmotherís sewing drawer.
The accidental newlyweds continued to the stairs and surveyed the ragged partiers obstructing the way. The chances of getting down without a tumble seemed doubtful, so the willful girl spun around to another room. “I know another way out!”
Again in a dark room, Aloysius recognized the sofa bed where the lovers earlier put on their performance. The smell of linseed oil told him they were invading an art studio. At first he perceived no evidence of canvases, but floor-to-ceiling paintings soon materialized. Each was covered in coats of crystalline black and asphaltum paint, and in their lack of description they bore striking resemblance to the work of minimalist artist Ad Reinhardt. The flummoxed trespasser could not connect these boilerplate abstracts to the artist who painted the nude portrait in the living room.
The determined guide divined a path between a worktable covered with crusty paints and an easel. A Japanese screen offered one last obstacle, and on ducking behind it, a door was at hand. It opened onto narrow, accordion-like stairs.
She yanked on his arm. “Keep up!”
Chapter Six, Section Three/ Back/ Contents Page
Copyright © 2007 Michael Teague. All rights reserved.