Here I am, all gutted and trussed up like a Christmas turkey. Carnations everywhere, Easter lilies at my feet, and, thanks to my old friend Eustace, calla lilies at my head. Just like that Diego Rivera painting—why did Eusie have to spend so much money on this, closing the barn door after this horse has left?
You could say that I have committed a mortal sin. According to the Church fathers, that means the sin must be of a “grave matter.” (Indeed.) You must commit it with full knowledge that it is a mortal sin. (Of course, I knew damn well what I was doing.) You must do it voluntarily. (Well, no one exactly twisted my arm.) However, I do feel a bit guilty that poor Mother was so beside herself with grief—after all, I had been her brilliant one, her highly educated, carefully raised, hothouse plant. I, Oscar, after my maternal grandfather, who also chose the same grand not-entrance-into-but-exit-out-of this vale of tears. You might argue that I should not have given in to despair—to be honest, I was in a fugue state. No, that’s not right, it was a toccata of ratcheting rage. The fugue was merely the release. Then the “voluntary.”
The feast I had prepared for all my friends was the momentous occasion: several racks of lamb, rare and seasoned with rosemary, stuck with garlic cloves, given a slight dusting of cinnamon and turmeric. Duck confit. Squab wrapped in grape leaves, seasoned with sage, drizzled with grenadine. The crowning glory, goose—Wafna!—crisp skin, never greasy, achieved with generous pokings and baptisms of a good French burgundy. We had mountains of greens, baby onions, caramelized sprouts, saffron rice with currents, carrots and parsnips in butter and dill. Lovely olive bread twisted into knotted rolls. Wine for every course.
Flaming puddings. Perfect pears. Now that was a meal!
I wore my best suit, a white silk scarf draped carefully around my neck. I had cut my hair for the occasion and besides the invitations, even printed out the menu, the courses and the course of events, right down to a “Grand Finale & Denouement–The Final Toast”
It was a bit unkind, I admit, as no one had the slightest idea what that meant, except that I noted that it would be accompanied by chocolates and a lovely Hungarian dessert wine that I had been saving for just such a special occasion.
Having then taken my special “aperitif” just before the guests arrived, I knew that the drowsiness I felt as I stood up and raised my glass for the denouement presaged an irrevocable sleep. Ting-ting-ting, I tapped a glass with my silver fork—My dear Friends! I will be leaving you all, going to a place where you cannot, but before I do, I have some things I have been wanting to say for a long, long time.
I turned to Eusie, my best and dearest friend:
—To you I entrust the job of overseeing my Mother when I am gone— I handed him an envelope in which I had enclosed a long and loving letter written to my dear Mater before the meal— Simply make sure that she is comfortable and well and doesn’t tipple too much. Get rid of that damn bloodsucker of a maid she has and find someone new; don’t let her run through too much money—
—Oscar-r-r-r-r, how long will you be gone?
—Stop trilling the ‘r’ in my name—you know how I hate that. Besides, I know you don’t think so, Old Man, but your attempts at Spanish have always been wretched! I turned to my next closest friend— Denis, for all the years we have known each other I have always wanted to tell you that, though you have been in some ways quite socially generous, you are one of the most miserly, mean-spirited men on earth…
I went around the room, which was now sepulchrally silent, naming friends and telling each one precisely what their strengths and characterological weaknesses were: Maude and her friend, Daisy, had spread malicious gossip about me only five years ago: Harold had deliberately cut me out of important social occasions; Dean, when I was a journalist, had gone behind my back to take the art column away from me; Jane filched a silver spoon from my kitchen (at least, she had never, ever, returned it); and Charles had forgotten to feed the cat for a whole day when I was away on vacation. Madelene had yelled at me, then, because I had neglected my cat; she, in fact, I said, had the patience of dog in heat. Hugh and his third wife who was not there, thank god! Hugh had terrible taste in wives, second only to his egregious failure to take responsibility for the character of his child when, upon its only visit to my house, had pulled my beloved’s tail and reached in and not only taken the goldfish out of its bowl, but swallowed it whole—That child is a monster, Hugh, I said. Only Eusie was spared but for that one earlier, milder reprimand; for, after all, I had entrusted my dear mother to his supervision.
No one around the table seemed to have the wherewithal to respond, and so I turned, finally, to Father Jack— Father Jack, I said. Father Jack while you are brilliant, fun at a party, and debonair, you are morally reprehensible and a discredit to the priesthood. You—
—Hold on. Father Jack bristled. “Judge not, lest ye be judged,” Oscar. And he stood up, immaculate in his collar and clerical black and, with his belly bulge, looking not unlike the proverbial priestly penguin, he dropped my good linen napkin on his dirty plate and turned to leave the room.
I realized that people were stirring and would leave soon if I did not hurry up my final toast. —Friends, friends, please sit down. You must know that just before this meal, I took a slow-acting poison and shortly after the last of our dessert, I shall be no more. There is no antidote.
Even Father Jack stopped in mid-escape., He whirled around— Sinner! You’re playing God, Oscar. You do not have the right! Only God can decide when your hour has come.
—And YOU? Father Jack? I replied. Just like a priest to mind my business. I could feel myself fading. —I’m on my way out. And I lifted my glass of special Hungarian dessert wine. —Hear, hear! I don’t have to put up with you any more!
The voices of my friends all murmuring in dismay (that will fix them!)—Go ahead, feel guilty!—became a buzz which turned into a loud sound of fluttering, as if a thousand hummingbirds were hovering in the air, amplified, and lights came on and the most comforting feeling, brilliant, warm lights glowing, as if from a bank of candles that had been all lit at once, orgasmic release from this weary old body of mine as if I were being bounced from one side to another of a channel of some sort, I fell down, so slowly and easily I went down and down and down, and I could see the candle flames leaping higher…I passed through a ring of cool fire, cool as though it were the false flames of an electric heater made to look like a hearth—and I distinctly remember thinking why all the fuss as there was really nothing to fear…
As I drifted away, like a helium balloon let loose from the grip of a child, I thought I heard someone say— Just like Oscar. I bet he’s just dead drunk, as usual!
I promise you: I shall be in touch…
Well, old fellow, here at last! Though, I confess, I hadn’t really expected it—figured there would be some sort of divine reprieve; but, oh no. He had already made up his mind. I have been transferred, willy-nilly, like it or not, as soon as that ceremonial you all held for me was over. Really, Eusie, it was quite a bash; but as my closest friend on earth, couldn’t you have spared a little cash for my poor sainted Mater instead of blowing so much on what amounts to a mere goodbye party?
I won’t bore you with an account of my first social event. I have written to Mother about it, and you are free to ask—in fact, I rather hoped you would call on her by now. Suffice it to say that H. has a reputation which seems not to be deserved—it’s not half the hole it’s supposed to be. I am lodged comfortably: window with a view over the water, slightly obscured by a tall building next to mine, room service relatively prompt, decent-looking fare. A few things are unsettling, however: I can’t seem to taste anything. I have no idea whether this is permanent or just a passing condition due to the transition. Where in hell, I should like to know, are my blankety-blank taste buds?
Secondly, I have been unable to get any appointments with the Grand Panjam who runs the place. Oh, the waiters, the doorman, those people you can always ask, and they are very polite and will offer to take messages for you, to put in a word to hurry the process along, etcetera, etcetera. But nothing happens, absolutely nothing.
Well, after a fortnight I was sure I had logged in enough to cover the basics here, but no, I have not been able to get at my account and, as a consequence, cannot go out and entertain myself in the style so many souls around me seem to do. Thus I sit and twiddle my immortal thumbs. Worse, with this dis-taste, this un-buddedness, this “condition” I have developed, my taste being in absentia denies me even the simple pleasure of eating. Yesterday, I eked out enough to buy a small quantity of ripe figs from a street vendor. Done up cone-fashion in a plain brown paper wrapper, they were deep purple, frosted blue—large Angus bull balls, I tell you. But when I broke them open, the inside was a deep, dusty pink, like the nipples of an Egyptian. No doubt, though, the seeds, the thousands of seeds imbedded in that pinkness were gametes indeed. Sigh. That, too, is a pleasure denied (lust, I mean.)
En serio, I would have almost expired from boredom, were that not a redundancy. Then, two nights ago Y. rung me up to invite me to another one of their little soirees, this time on a barge on the river. This too was quite a bash—costumes, masks, men dressed in red carrying pitchforks and swishing their tails, women in black right down to the polish on their toenails. Fog hung over the harbor: the moon was full and mauve in the fading light, and it almost seemed to dip and swirl over the city towers as the bus rattled towards the stop. I was cursing Y. for his invitation, since I knew I he would have arrived ahead of me in his private car, telling his driver “you only need wait for a few hours.” This is my “guide?” He never even thought to ask if I wanted a ride.
As I was saying, the moon was dipping and swirling over the city towers as the bus took me to the bottom of the hill to the quay. Red paper lanterns strung from the awnings of a whole fleet of flat-bottom boats, anchored end to end till they nearly reached from our side of the water to the other and gently rocking in the wake of a ferry coming the other way. It was sweltering; the atmosphere was so thick people appeared with no warning, a woman in a powdered wig suddenly centimeters from my face, Father Time perched on a great coil of sisal, close as a whisper, laughing at me or perhaps at the woman in her periwig disappearing again in the mist, or the sight of guests who seemed to fly in on leather wings. Huge chunks of some kind of meat turned on spits in the center barque, fat dripping into wooden boxes filled with sand and placed carefully underneath. Oak vats—drink, old fellow, at least I can drink! Who cares if what I drink “tastes” a little flat?—oak vats filled with intoxicating brew, strange fruits and steamy puddings, heavy stews, so tempting but for naught. Everyone was carrying on like there was no tomorrow…
Suddenly the whole harbor went boneyard quiet. Then I heard the grating metallic sound of brass instruments blown at a painful pitch. Silence. The blast of brass again, a little farther down the scale. Silence. One more blast, a brass voluntary like an organ that rocked the harbor with a wake of sound so strong that our little pontoon nearly broke apart, pitching and jerking to and fro. Sudden phosphorescent flashes of light left a sulphuric singe in the air.
His boat was a fantastical affair with a stern and bowsprit like curly-toed Turcoman shoes. He lay on top of a layer of cushions, garnet and ochre striped silk, a huge fur blanket thrown around him, pale, with a thin mustache, the most sorrowful Being I think I have ever seen. “I just can’t get warm,” He said, somewhat apologetically, and He drew those hundreds of little attached pelts up around Him.
I can’t describe what happened next. That is, it felt as though no words were uttered but a whole lifetime of words passed between us. I was fully conscious, but ineluctably drawn in, into those bottomless black Eyes that saw all wounds, all punishments and wars and cruelties from the tearing off of butterfly wings to slow starvation, all perversities, all revenge, the racks, the iron maidens and cattle prods and amputations, all the pain human beings have visited upon one another—those Eyes kept looking, nimbly examining my insides, His inquisitive, ferret-like Eyes pawed over every particle of my soul, my memories, my past till, drained, my body was just a husk. I don’t even know how I got home, but for Y. who, with no particular interest or compassion but contrary to all my expectations got his driver to throw me in the back seat of the car and dump me on the doorstep of my lodging. Y. tittered as he left. I remember that.
Eusie, something has given a great heave. Like the way a pond turns over every spring, but I am not going into spring. Here, it is always autumn; we know what is supposed to come next. Now I have written far longer into the night than I can bear.