The Dying (with apologies to James Joyce)
Lily, the gardener’s daughter, was being run off her feet. Marshaled to help with the catering, she had brought one guest after another (men, mostly) into the massive kitchen, served them champagne and showed them where to leave their coats (in the pantry, converted into a closet). She could hear the buzzer ringing and had to scamper down the stairs to let in the newly arriving guests. Fortunately she didn’t have to manage the two alcoholic sisters, Kate and Julia Trainor, who together owned the old home in Pacific Heights. She could hear them out on the patio, gossiping and laughing, calling out to their many gentlemen friends to drink some more champagne.
Kate and Julia had good reason to be in such high spirits. It was New Year’s Eve, and as the party got boisterous and more crowded, the anticipation of the imminent arrival of
the Conroys, guests of honor, grew louder and more feverish. That, and everyone was afraid that Frankie Monroe would turn up soused as usual. No one wanted the children to see him under the influence, and everyone knew he could be belligerent and unmanageable. Frankie Monroe was always late, and everyone hoped that Garfield Conroy arrived before him to keep the drunken Irishman in check.
“Good evening, Mr. Conroy,” said Lily, a trifle breathlessly, when the celebrated couple finally arrived. Miss Kate and Miss Julia thought you’d never come!”
“I’ll bet they did,” said Garfield, “they probably forgot that my wife takes at least three hours to get ready.”
He stood in the doorway, shaking the rain off his boots. Lily informed the sisters that the Conroys were here. Kate and Julia came down dark stairs immediately. They kissed Garfield and his wife, and asked if they were hungry. Mrs. Conroy followed them up the stairs into the kitchen.
“I’ll be right up!” said Garfield, who continued to shake his galoshes ostentatiously as the three women made their way to the rooftop patio. He wore a long raincoat, wet at the shoulders from the earlier rainfall, even though it had stopped raining and was clearing rapidly. As he gave Lily his raincoat she noticed the fragrant aroma of his cologne emanating from its’ crevices and folds.
“Did you get soaked Mr. Conroy?” asked Lily. She was with him in the pantry/closet and was helping him take off the raincoat. Garfield smiled at the way she expressed his name and looked at her searchingly. She was slim and agile, with a yoga body and a pale complexion bounded by hay-colored hair. The recessed lighting made her look paler. Garfield had known her since she was a teenager and remembered seeing her sitting barefoot on the steps of the house while her father trimmed the bushes.
“Yes Lily,” he answered, “I think we’re in for a long night tonight.”
He looked up at the ceiling, which was shaking and stamping and shuffling with the feet on the floor above, listened as the DJ switched tracks, and then looked at the girl, who was carefully hanging his raincoat at the end of the closet.
“So Lily, still in school?” he asked.
“Not any more, Mr. Conroy. I graduated last summer.”
“Congrats!” Said Garfield, a trifle expectantly, “seeing anyone?”
She looked at him and said, with a tone of world-weariness he never expected in someone so young:
“All men want to do is get inside my jeans! Everything they say is just talk to try to get me in bed.”
Garfield felt his cheeks flush, and looked down at his shoes. Without looking at her, he kicked off his galoshes and pulled out a pair of patent-leather brogues from his messenger-bag.
He was tall and sturdy, with ruddy cheeks and a high forehead that colored itself when he was embarrassed; his face was clean-shaven and his eyes grey-green and restless, betraying his Irish stock. His glossy black hair was center-parted in a long curve behind his ears where it curled slightly under his hat. He alternately rubbed his shoes on his trouser-cuffs, then reached into his pocket and pulled out a fistful of hundred-dollar bills.
“Hey Lily, listen, it’s New Year” he said, putting the money into her hands. “Here’s
something…you know…maybe we could…” He slid his other hand down her back.
“Oh Mr. Conroy!, I really couldn’t take it” she said, pushing away from his grasp.
“New Year! New Year” said Garfield, running after her and waving the bills in desperation.
“No thank you sir.” Lily said, defiantly.
Defeated, he went upstairs and waited outside the living-room door until the DJ finished his set, still angry and embarrassed by the girl’s rejection. He fiddled with his silk scarf and lapels, affecting an air of insouciance. He took a piece of paper out of his pocket and glanced at the headings for his New Year speech. He was undecided about quoting e.e.cummings – something the rabble would recognize from Shakespeare might be better, he thought. The indelicate fist-bumping and foot-stomping of the men dancing in the living room reminded him that the web-two-dot-oh kids were of a different cultural level. He would only make himself look ridiculous quoting poetry to them that wasn’t from some rapper that they had heard of. They would assume he was airing the fact that he’d completed college, not dropped out to start a tech company, like the vast majority of them. He would be an embarrassment to them just as he’d been an embarrassment to the girl in the pantry. He had taken the wrong tone, and suddenly Conroy felt his whole speech was a mistake. Just then his aunts and wife came out of the bedroom. The sisters were both small and wildly dressed for the festive night. Aunt Julia had drawn her grey hair low over her ears, as if to hide something, and her face was flaccid, with slow eyes and parted lips. She looked like she wasn’t quite sure where she was or why she was there. Her sister Kate was more vivacious. Her face was all puckers and creases, a shriveled apple, her hair, a ripe nut color. They looked like characters out of an Edwardian novel, with elements of “Burning Man” chic giving a steampunk effect to their dress and manner. They took turns kissing Garfield on the cheek.
“Gretta tells me you’re going to take Uber back to the Mission tonight?” said Aunt Kate.
“No”, said Garfield, turning to his wife, “we had quite enough of that last year! Don’t you remember what we had to pay with surge pricing? The car took hours to get here, the windows were draughty, and that rain blowing past the Metreon! Not very fun, and Gretta caught a cold.”
Aunt Kate frowned and nodded her head.
“Quite right, Garfield, quite right” she said. “You can’t be too careful.”
“And Gretta,” said Gabriel, “she’d walk home in the rain if she’s lit!”
Kate and Julia laughed.
“Don’t mind him, Aunt Kate,” Gretta said. He’s always like that. You’ll never guess what he’s making me wear!”
She glanced at her husband, whose uncomfortable eyes had been wandering from her dress to her face and hair. The two aunts laughed also, Garfield’s discomfort being a standing joke amongst them.
“Galoshes!” said Gretta. “That’s the latest. Whenever it’s wet I put on my galoshes. Tonight he wanted me to put them on, but I wouldn’t let him. The next thing he’ll be buying me a diving suit!”
Garfield laughed nervously and patted his tie reassuringly while Aunt Kate nearly doubled in laughter. However the smile faded from Aunt Julia’s face once her mirthless eyes were directed towards her nephew’s face. She asked:
“And why do you want your wife to wear galoshes, Garfield?”
“Galoshes, Julia!” exclaimed her sister. “Goodness me, don’t you know what galoshes are? You wear them over your . . . over your boots, Gretta, right?”
“Yes, said Gretta Conroy. “We both have a pair now. Garfield says everyone’s wearing them in London.”
“Oh, in London,” murmured Aunt Julia, nodding her head.
Garfield knitted his brow and said: “It’s nothing special but Gretta thinks it’s very funny because the word reminds her of YYYY.”
Tell me Garfield”, said Aunt Kate, switching topics tactfully. “You’ve seen the room? Gretta was saying . . .”
“The room is just fine” replied Garfield.
And the children, Gretta, you’re not worried about them?”
“Not for a night”, said Mrs Conroy. “Beatrice will look after them.”
”It’s great you have a girl you can depend on!” said Aunt Kate. “There’s Lily, but I just don’t know what’s come over her. She’s not the girl she was at all.”
Garfield was about to ask his aunt some questions but she broke off suddenly to gaze after her sister who had wandered down the stairs and was craning her neck over the banisters.
“Now, I ask you, where is Julia going? Julia! Julia! Where are you going?”
Julia announced: “Here’s Frankie!”
At that moment the thumping of drums and a final flourish by the DJ signaled that the dancing had ended. The living-room door opened and a group of young couples, clearly drunk, staggered out. Aunt Kate drew Garfield aside hurriedly and whispered into his ear:
“Go down Garfield and see if he’s all right, and don’t let him come up if he’s smashed. I’m sure he’s smashed!”
Garfield went to the stairs and listened over the banisters. He could hear people talking in the pantry. He recognized Frankie Monroe’s laugh. He went down the stairs.
“It’s such a relief that Garfield’s here! I always feel easier in my mind when he’s here.… Julia, ask Pamela Daly and Monique Power if they’d like some more champagne. Thanks for the great music, DJ Daly! Everyone loved it!”
A tall wizen-faced man, with a stiff grizzled mustache and swarthy skin, who was exchanging records with a colleague said: “And how about some champagne for us Miss Trainor?”
“I’m a ladies man.” said DJ Daly, pursing his lips until his mustache bristled and smiling with his wrinkles. “You know, Miss Trainor, the reason they find me so hot is…”