An ultra-glam Molly McCann floated into the aquatics’ now infamous Halloween party just as the Baron was about to make his first great observation of the night: that it was refreshing to see two people his own age use a ping pong table for its intended purpose, rather than as a platform for Beirut.
The improbable game had broken out at a diver’s whim, after two rubber paddles were found sitting inside a hollowed-out television set. This diver, who tonight was done up as a kind of aboriginal warlord, challenged a girl in lynx ears to a match; and at the moment Molly appeared, the score was three-nil in the feral cat’s favor. It was also at this moment that the Baron felt the time was ripe for a harmless bit of social critique, as the band was between songs and it was now quiet enough for his fellow spectators to hear; but the sight of Molly so arrested him that he had to forgo the opportunity in order to alert NW, his chaperone for the occasion, to this most fortuitous scene.
“There she is,” said the Baron, softly from under his scaly felt beak. “The one I was telling you about.”
On the other side of the room, Molly shrugged off her turquoise parka. A sleeveless black dress, modestly hemmed at the knee but with a lacy, see-through back, cut a fine silhouette against her trim freckled figure. Bangles
galore adorned her wrists, and in her hair she’d pinned a brilliant peacock plume, standing erect just behind her right ear.
NW, glued to the game, did not acknowledge the Baron at first. The girl in lynx ears had served up a doozy of an ace, and NW, standing directly behind the diver, had to duck his head to evade the line of fire. By the time NW stood back up, the ball had landed, scuttling to a stop in the kitchen, and Molly, thirsty for a cocktail, was already halfway down the stairs to the basement, where the rowers were mixing drinks. A sad clown, who had so far been the unofficial scorekeeper, loafed over to retrieve the ball, and NW nodded in solemn consideration at Molly’s vanishing calves.
“She thinks I’d make a great professor, you know,” said the Baron.
“Get out of town,” said NW, flatly. He brought out a plastic bottle from the inside pocket of his coat and took a discrete swig. Then he stepped into the bathroom and set the bottle in the trash.
Let it be known (for those who are innately curious about such things) that Norton Wesley Forrester III and the Baron were not friends, nor did they aspire to be. This is not to say that they were enemies—there was no enmity between them—but rather their relationship was something in between, something murkier, not so easy to define. For the Baron, it was NW’s prickliness that turned him off. Take NW’s last utterance as an example. The Baron would have preferred that NW echo Molly’s sentiment rather than belittle it, but he knew that to expect anything other than practiced apathy was to wait in vain: just like ping pong at an aquatics’ party, a heartfelt compliment from NW was a rarity to be savored. As for what NW thought of the Baron, it was anyone’s guess. NW never said very much, nothing revelatory, anyway. He was like the main character of a long lost Steely Dan song, in the tradition of Deacon Blues and Cousin Dupree, eternally and effortlessly cool but with an insular gloom about him, a darkness that was almost romantic in its leanings. NW was at home in this darkness the same way he was at home in his maroon and navy blue striped scarf, a ubiquitous souvenir of his boarding school days in Santa Barbara. He wore it confidently and with the kind of tossed-off air that the Baron and his friends found femmy but all secretly envied; for not one of them in a billion years could ever pull off the look so convincingly.
Now it was the Baron’s turn to be mocked, the price paid for losing a bet to Matheson, the Rapa Nui’s resident pool shark and small-time bookie. All evening the Baron’s plush domed back, teardrop ears and fat tail had been fair game for the more hateful members of the water polo team; and, under different circumstances, he might have nobly endured another three hours of their punches, pinches, and prods if it meant keeping his word. But with a stag Molly milling about just a floor below, he could no longer afford to stay in costume. When NW suggested that he should talk to her, the Baron replied, “I will, once I shuck this shell.” He tugged off his sequined gloves but left on the mask to maintain his anonymity.
“What about the bet?” said NW.
“Matheson’s not here,” said the Baron. “He’ll only know if you squeal.”
“I swore I’d keep an eye on you.”
“Then come back to the building and watch me change.”
“I wouldn’t leave if I were you.”
“What is he going to do?”
“Trust me. You should stay.”
“Chicks like Molly don’t fuck armadillos. Even Matheson would accept that.”
NW sighed. “It’s your choice.”
“Where are you going?”
NW didn’t look back on his way towards the garage. “To see about something,” he said. This was a signature NW line that only complicated his mystery; he was always prospecting, but for what, only God really knew.
The ping pong game dissolved after the badly losing diver
lost interest, and the Baron, now lacking an audience but with a new objective, stepped out the back door and went home. In his absence, the modestly attended party grew into a full-blown rager, complete with keg stands and other acts of indiscretion that gathered even the most prudish guests outside. The back deck and yard soon became so saturated with French maids, Rasta pimps, dorks and the undead, that when a trio of Paul Reveres trudged through the drunken lot, carrying a bloated burlap sack and an oblong suitcase, no one so much as batted an eye. No one even noticed.
Perry Matheson, it must be disclosed before I continue, had never been the jealous type, so what happened next should not be misconstrued as an act of malice. It is true that Matheson, like the Baron, loved Molly; only Matheson, unlike the Baron, who confused love with an irresistible tightness in his pants, loved her very deeply, and in detail. He loved how gracefully she erased chalkboards: in long, lazy strokes. He loved the shallow dimples in her cheeks that would appear whenever she read aloud a bawdy line of poetry. He loved her tattered crossbones shoelaces, and her Minnesota accent, and her (sometimes) legible commentary in the margins of his papers. He loved her so much that oftentimes in his boozy reminiscences he would divide his existence on this planet into two parts: Life before Molly, and Life Afterwards. He even loved her in the pit of betrayal, when he spied her in Wheeler Hall one afternoon, gushing over the Baron’s essay proposal with the same level of enthusiasm as she had over his own proposal only a semester earlier. (Who knew they were both cut out to be such fine academics?) But when the Baron skimped on his promise, Matheson had to put his feelings aside. Molly would need to be his pawn—just this once—if the Baron was to be brought to justice. For if there was anything that mattered more to Matheson than true love, justice would be it.
When the Baron returned, it was midnight, or thereabouts. Matheson had been waiting almost an hour. He sat inside a sun-bleached rowboat, alone, at the farthest corner of the yard; so far removed from the action, in fact, that it was sheer happenstance when the Baron, dressed now in a dusty rose suit, spotted Matheson smiling sumptuously at him and, realizing that he’d been caught, came near. Matheson doffed his sombrero.
“You folded,” he said. “Like a wet tortilla.”
“Something came up,” said the Baron. “You would have done the same.”
Matheson flicked a toothpick from his mouth. “You made a costly mistake, Baron.”
“I’m good for it.”
“It was a costly mistake,” Matheson repeated. “You’d hate yourself if you knew.”
“I said I’m good for it.”
Matheson’s face grew sour. “Money won’t fix this. Nothing will.”
“You greedy bastard,” the Baron said. “Just give me the damage.”
“The damage?” Matheson said. He reached under his seat. “You mean, the irreparable, irreversible damage?”
Before the Baron could realize it, his fist had crushed the cartilage in Matheson’s nose; the sombrero flew off his head like a Frisbee; the peacock feather he’d revealed swirled from his hand to the ground. Matheson tumbled backwards out of the boat and into a bristly nest of weeds, cursing. The Baron turned into the crowd. Just then, a dazzling orb of fire sailed overhead, followed by a sonorous pop. The orb exploded into a rain of cinder and pumpkin guts that settled over the party—suffice it to say, all hell broke loose. Shouts and shrieks ripped across the firmament, rattling the moon and the stars. The yard lit up like an absurdist pinball game in championship mode, with Tolkien-stoned Bilbos bouncing off trannies, and witches sweeping past surgeons, and greaser babes squeezing soup-can waists through gaps in the fence. Car alarms caterwauled on Chilton Way, and in the distance sirens cried, faintly then louder, louder. On the balcony above, a colonist reloaded an antique musket, as two others in tricorne hats looked on.
The Baron scrambled into the house and made a beeline for the stairs. From out of the basement stormed the rowers and their company, a grunting herd of Vikings and maidens; the burliest among them cast aside the ping pong table, which had been tilted on end and propped up against the front door. Above them the gun fired a second time, even more thunderously than the first, and the living room window went florid with flame. A werewolf tore through the kitchen and dove behind a sofa, where he cowered, whimpering, with his paws to his ears.
At the top of the stairs, the sad clown sat waiting. “You’re too late,” he said, his doleful black eyes bright with tears. In his thick, white-gloved hands, he held a maroon and navy blue striped scarf, hanging limply from his upturned palms as if it were the last surviving garment of a fallen brother. The Baron could have slugged him then, but the clown was too pathetic to harm, guilty or not. The Baron sidestepped him and marched down the hall. Through the crack in the door, NW’s hairy outstretched leg was visible, resting atop a rumpled sheet, its foot pointed skyward. The Baron’s pace quickened, but before he could get a broader view, a force from behind tackled him to the ground. On the way down his head hit the door and knocked it open; and when he stared up through Matheson’s bloody fingers at the incriminating sight—the rippled spine of her lace-covered back, undulating to a rhythm not her own; the gunman on the balcony behind her, taking aim at Saturn’s crumbled rings—the Baron felt the ache of knowledge within him, that he had unwittingly gambled away the fate of mankind for the chance to screw a woman he never really knew.