MARK O’DONNELL WEEK.
(As Mark O’Donnell’s new book, Let Nothing You Dismay , delights paying customers from Portland to Portland, we offer this brief glimpse — for free! In this excerpt, we join the protagonist, Tad, at his umpteenth consecutive Christmas party, this one thrown by Dean, an ex-lover and fancy-fancy publisher of Vision, a magazine of gloss and glamor. At this point Tad is wobbly from wine, but glad to see a few familiar familiar faces in the crowd, bright as it is with twinkling stars.)
“Tad!” A woman’s voice called. He turned to see Yoni, her radical air and hair concealed under a placid wimple, and in a crisp Virgin Mary blue wraparound sackcloth.
“Yoni! You’re working here!” He over-acted his surprise in the noise of the room.
“Hey, this way the outfit gets double duty, here and at my show! Crab cake?” She offered her tray with a droll milkmaid curtsey. “Norman’s doing the vegetarian dumplings, see?” She indicated a pocket of space in a far corner, where Norman, in the gold-trimmed purple robes of one of the Magi, and the traditional gilded muffin-shaped hat, was silently holding a tray while a dipsomaniacal couple indifferent to his presence heatedly discussed their personal problems, pointing the toothpicks they’d speared their dumplings with at each other for emphasis.
“Norman got to be one of the three kings because of the goatee tattoo,” Yoni confided in the din. “It makes him seem more from-Orient-are.” Tad marveled at the idea that Norman had to hold his tongue while others spoke.
“Whoa,” Tad announced to no one in particular. “The Venn diagrams are starting to overlap!”
“What?” Yoni asked. Her trove of arcana didn’t include math.
“I know more of the employees here than I know guests,” he recited slowly, as if some object lesson had just been visited upon him.
“Well, it’s not surprising. Have you been up on the roof?” Yoni asked unexpectedly, her eyes unusually wide for a middle-aged woman.
“No, but Dean says there’s a display…”
“Tad Leary, you cosmic man boy you! It’s amazing! They had a rink installed for this party! You must see it!”
Nearby, the photographer called to her. “Hey, Blessed Virgin Mary! How about a photo op with you and these gals?” The two functionally blonde women were giggling next to him.
Yoni looked more pleased than put upon, but murmured to Tad, “Noblesse oblige!” and put down her tray briefly to position her pastel robe between the black-sheathed models, who kicked up a heel each and bussed the Queen of Heaven on her cheek in playful obeisance.
“Good, good!” the photographer called. “Better yet — Now let’s get Mary between those bodybuilders! The BVM with the BVDs!” Angelo’s brothers loved cheesecake and even porno, and they would have vocally encouraged the two models to undress, but the women’s fully dressed sporting with the image of the Virgin would have scandalized them.
Tad left Yoni to her combination of servitude and beatification, and deliberately climbed the carpeted stairs to the penthouse terrace, to see the spectacle whose coming had been foretold to him. What was ordinarily a vast patio space had been partially converted to a small ice-skating rink, and on it a young couple in rococo tights were demonstrating dazzling ice dancing routines. Tad thought of the nightclubs in old movies, where the patrons ate and drank while a dance team performed for them. The wind at the rooftop’s height was very cold, so only a few spectators braved it to watch the side show, though Tad recognized the couple as recent Olympic-medalist skaters. As a child he’d thought hiring a magician for a birthday party was the apex of visible expense. But then, he’d thought free-standing frame pools were unattainably deluxe.
As he watched the pair glide in necessarily constricted circles, wondering whether they were married, and how they could leap through the air and risk breaking their necks together day after day, year after year, Tad heard a cow moo. Behind him was another display, a tiny fenced-in petting zoo of farm animals attended by two men dressed as New Testament shepherds. They dispensed the hay, and Tad momentarily wondered if they were part of the Triumphal Food staff. Had there been any children at the party, this would have been its epicenter, with its sheep, goats, and cow for those ordinarily powerless little people to condescend to. Poultry somehow don’t have the status or warmth to figure in creche tableaux.
Tad, though he was shivering in just his shirt, dutifully circled the pen and patted each animal’s head. Since he seemed to know the staff better than the celebrities, he pretended to know the barnyard animals personally as well. “Hi, Carla,” he greeted the cow. “See ya back at the barn!” He gave the sheep the thumbs-up sign. “Hi, Hughie, hi Skip! At least you’ve got a job!” He zapped the goat with the salutory index finger of the cocktail phony. “Billy, you still got that goat thing goin’!”
One of the temp shepherds, whose lit cigarette undermined his antique effect, eyed Tad dubiously, so Tad felt he should say something demonstrably normal. “How did you get them all up here?” He asked.
“Service elevator,” the shepherd answered indifferently.
Tad could muster no other questions, so squinted at the man approvingly and ambled back inside and downstairs. He again caromed from room to room, but there was no chink in any clique for him to insert himself. He mused that he could probably hide behind the drapes and live in Doozy’s expansive place for years, undiscovered as a mouse, but of course, Dean wouldn’t like the discovery that he was, in fact, living with Tad, albeit unwittingly.
In the far room, Roscoe’s combo was playing a bluesy take on I Wonder As I Wander. Finally, Dean, to paint over his rejection of Tad, sought him out again. It was only a few minutes later,but to a guest who knows no one, a few minutes can seem like an hour.
“Come meet Doozy!” he said, “if he isn’t already mobbed by people with ideas for projects!” The word already sounded strange to Tad, as if he, Tad, had an idea for a project. There was his Hierarchies of Imaginary Places, but he didn’t feel like writing it any more, at least not that night.
Dean led him to the main room and introduced him to several well-tonsured guests, but Tad to his inner alarm found he was starting to have trouble understanding everything that was being said. What he heard was, “Tad, this is Brandish Albacore, he’s a lawyer at Hector, Harris and Hound. And this is Jitney Spires, he’s a trader at Sachs and Sachs.”
“Sacks and sacks, that’s straightforward. You’re mighty mighty.” Tad had turned off his inner censor. Half-jealous, half-dismissive, he concluded this was a crowd to whom Christmas meant, above all, bonus! Dean and the two men were speaking, but he hardly heard them over the sizzling of his mental stove. Somebody usedthe word “Congress,” or possibly it was “Commerce,” and Tad asked himself if at this level there was really any difference between the two.
" Brandish, Jitney, this is Tad Leary. Tad is the most eligible bachelor in New York!"
The desperate undertow of this glistening wave of a compliment disturbed Tad. “Not the most,” he added politely. “Just the best.”
“That’s the attitude!” one of them said with the jauntiness required at institutions, but in a minute they had both wandered to more familiar faces, leaving Tad free to tour the halls like a documentarist without a camera. He began to taste a strange remorse for his small-minded rejection of unimpressive but genuinely encouraging Angelo.
“There he is!” Dean approached Tad urgently, as if he’d just sighted a famous man he didn’t know personally, and grabbed Tad’s arm to lead him to the presence of Doozy. Whereas everyone else was wearing fanciful black evening clothes, Kris Van Duzen stuck to his daytime business suit. His bullet-like shaved head turned the supposed liability of baldness into an aggressive gesture — with Norman it seemed like guesswork — and combined with the fact he was short, though taller than Tad, he seemed to radiate potential energy like a compact and polished nuclear warhead.
He was explaining an upcoming project to the two models in black Tad had met earlier. “The working title is Mall Zombies. ‘Shop after you drop!’”
“Tad Leary, Kris Van Dusen! Kris, my friend Tad!” Dean said hurriedly, as if Tad had now seen the big local attraction and could now leave.
Doozy’s piercing gaze made Tad want to fold his poker hand, had he had one. “So, you know my current boyfriend,” Doozy said tartly. He and Dean had lived together for almost a year, but Tad wondered if he was joking or pragmatic.
“Just barely!” Tad answered impulsively, which was supposed to minimize his guilt about how he knew Dean, but it made the situation even wobblier.
“Tad does…” Dean began, and paused, and Tad could sense that Dean was at a loss for verbs where Tad was concerned. “Um… Oh! Are you still doing that angels and devils thing, that, like, baseball program, like which ones are the generals and which are the sergeants and, uh… pawns?”
“Yes!” Tad tried to explain, though he was surprised to find words began to elude his tongue. The wine was rushing past his temples. “Yes, absolutely! Lucifer, Satan, Mephistopheles, Beelzebub, Nicodemus… Sometimes they’re all the same being and sometimes they’re distinct. from each other.”
Doozy gave a disinterested stare, as if he were at a pitch meeting for a movie he wasn’t likely to fund. “I assumed they were all one man with a lot of aliases.” To Doozy, Satan was just another competitor.
“No, some of them were gods who got discredited when Christianity came in.”
The octopedal businessman processed the information, even while spreading some cheese on a cracker and surveying the room for more sober and less superfluous company. “Oh, blame the previous administration, huh?”
“Well, like… they took Egypt’s Set and made him Satan.”
“That sounds like some maxim from a farmer’s almanac.” Doozy said distractedly, since he was thinking about several other things simultaneously.
The two good-natured models, who’d stood by mutely, now ventured into the conversation like student drivers edging into speeding traffic.“My big question is,” one of them jumped in, and paused for emphasis. “Who designed Hell? God? The devil? I mean, is that how he wants it? Those stone things that hang from the ceiling? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying I don’t like it.”
“It looks like a club.”
“Yeah. Heaven, though, is too brightly lit.”