The air was thick with breath and perfume. The ostensible reason for the sioree, the homecoming of Gregor Helene, had been quickly lost to the evening as the conversation grew drier and the alcohol more plentiful. Across the room now, bodies stood straight by sheer force of will, their inhabitants doing battle with the spirits. What had begun as political repartee had degenerated to thinly veiled hostility before the sundial in the garden stopped keeping time; friendly chats had long devolved into slurred mumbling. Still, the party went on. Until Gregor left, neither would anyone else.
As for Gregor himself, he was among the few still sober, though he hardly seemed to notice or care. His manner was such that those around him were equally unaware. He swaggered like a man half inebriated on his way to church—no party could slow him down. His entourage, even Lars, the melting toad of a man, was slowly losing their will to converse—or even to remain upright—but Gregor showed no signs of slowing.
“Ah, but it is not late,” he said, contra the clock’s insistence. “Why, while at sea, we would stay up hours later—days later, in fact. Once, while harbored in the Gulf of Mexico, we spent a week with our eyes open nearly as wide as our mouths; any man who’d chosen to sleep would have woken to find himself stripped to the waist and duct taped to the bow!” He laughed, and so did everyone in his line of sight. Lars tried to make himself invisible, fearing that laughter would upset his already unhappy bladder, but Gregor turned to him and slapped him on the back hard enough to make the point moot. He laughed too.
Across the room, there sat another man, slightly more intoxicated and infinitely more morose. He wore a black suit, perfectly formal but now imperceptibly flecked with fuzz and party stuffs. Though more dapper when the night began, the gathering had hardly beaten him down. His own entourage—a rather grand title for a small poodle and his cousin Edgar who rarely spoke—slept soundly on the floor around his ankles. Gregor made a particularly loud remark, the punchline to an especially boorish story, and the poodle, which was named Hilda, opened her eyes, growled and returned to her sleep. The man glanced down, and, upon raising his head, was annoyed to see Judy Tiff, the hostess, approaching his perch.
“I trust you are having a wonderful time, Mr. Fungal? Can you hear Gregor—er, Officer Helene? He’s been telling the most amusing stories. Some, I’m sorry to say, are not truly fit for mixed company, but, as you know, I am no pristine woman.”
“You do not,” said Fungal, “seem particularly sorry. And have no fear: I had not mistaken you for a woman of noble standing.”
Mrs. Tiff, evidently unaware of the meaning of certain words, smiled as if Fungal had just handed her a tiara and called her princess, and then went on:
“I trust you’ve made some good connections? Not that you probably need more, in your line of work. I suspect you’ve got connections enough to build a bridge!” Satisfied with her turn of phrase, she fell silent, looking at him Fungal as though she had asked him a question.
“What is it, Madame, that you think I do?”
“Why, diplomacy, of course. Meeting behind closed doors and all that. I don’t wonder that some of the prices I’ve been seeing at Bennington’s have your fingerprints on them. I couldn’t draw a diagram, of course—not really my area of expertise—but I suspect I know well enough.”
Fungal, quite tired of the conversation and too tired to bother correcting what he assumed was a rather liberal interpretation of his vocation, smiled coldly.
“I don’t wish to be rude, Mrs. Tiff, but as you can see, Edgar is sleeping quite soundly…” He gestured toward his comatose companion just as another wave of guffaws crashed into his personal space. Mrs. Tiff stood for a moment, smiled plastered on her face, and then, feeling unexpectedly unwelcome, opened her mouth to say something and then backed away several steps before closing it, turning around, and reintegrating herself back into Gregor’s crowd.
Lars, tired of the dampness of his clothing—a damp of unknown source—decided at just that moment that a trip to the bathroom was quite unavoidable, and, during the gale of laughter from Gregor’s latest tale—one involving an octopus, a washboard, and three stockings—he allowed himself to be absorbed by the crowd until he too could back away from his engagement.
“Oh!” cried Mrs. Tiff, as Lars backed into her. He apologized at the exact moment of another punchline, and his words were lost in the wash. Mrs. Tiff didn’t mind—she’d been “Oh”-ing from an awkwardly placed hand and hadn’t seen Lars at all.