The mob was after me for a gambling debt so big it was life size. I couldn't go home. I worked for an accounting firm that occupied two floors of a high-rise downtown. The security in the building was tighter than Muhammad Ali's fist, so I planned on staying late--around the clock, in fact. It was past nine in the evening and everyone had long since gone. I felt safe, but not so safe that I didn't open my top drawer when I heard the pat pat pat of footsteps on the carpet in the hall. When they stopped just outside my door, skin hit metal, though my hand didn't lift the gun from where it lay at the back of the drawer. It was a lucky gun. I'd won it in a poker game from a woman. I'd fired it plenty of times, but so far I'd never had to use it for real. I heard a light knock on the door; the doorknob turned. It started raining inside my shirt.
"May I come in?" It was the guy from down the hall--snooty, never talked to anyone--never crossed my mind he was Mafia until that moment. I had scarcely been aware of his existence until about a week before when our eyes happened to lock in the elevator. For some reason I couldn't look away. His eyes had the strangest color. At first they appeared flat and gray, but as I kept looking, they began to change shades like a kaleidoscope. I had been scrutinized about a billion times by all sorts of lowlife--it was one of the perks of gambling--but this felt different, eerie, as if by looking at me he knew every last little-bitty secret I had. When our floor came, I felt strangely disappointed.
"What is it?" I asked now, trying to sound annoyed.
He pushed the door the rest of the way open. My eyes were drawn to his hands like magnets to steel. Limp puppies.
"Actually, I'm on my way to a party and wanted to invite you along," he said.
He was wearing a suit that had long since gone out of style and a dark red ascot. He was in his fifties--not that old, some say the prime of life--but there was something resigned about him that made him seem a lot older. He was taller than I am, but I had more bulk and probably about fifteen fewer years, so I could take him if it came to that. For whatever it's worth, he had more hair--thick, black. He wasn't your typical thug, but if there was one thing I'd learned from my life on the other side, we come in all shapes and sizes. If he was Mafia, I reasoned, there was no way I was going with him to a party. If he wasn't, there was still no way I was going.
"I appreciate it," I said, "but I'm busy."
He took a step farther into the room. The door clicked behind him. I was still sitting at my desk, still squeezing my gun. He didn't seem to notice that my hand was occupied, but I was watching his like a hawk.
"Listen to my story," he said, gently resting his hands in full view on the back of the vinyl chair in front of my desk. "When I'm finished, then you can decide whether or not you want to come along." His fingernails were shiny.
I was a gambler and he was bluffing. I knew it, just as I had known it a thousand times at the poker table, facing a thousand other bluffers. I ran my fingers over the slide, unlocked the safety. I'd known for just about my whole life that I would end up like this, but that didn't make me stop. The way I figured it, gambling was nothing more than a raunchy bit of hope, and everyone needed a piece now and again. That was my excuse, anyway.
"Sorry," I said firmly. "I'd love to sit and chat, but, as I said, I've got a previous engagement."
"I think you'd better listen," he said, looking straight at me. He then sat down in the chair across from mine, his hands clasped in his lap, like a priest or a corpse. He began his story slowly, confidently, as if we were old friends catching up on lost years.
"The first time I attended Mrs. Lange's party, the event to which I am inviting you tonight," he began, "I had recently been diagnosed with lung cancer. The doctors were surprised that a young man--I was thirty-one--would have such a disease. They assured me several times that with my youth I would be able to put up a good, strong fight, although the word `cure' was never mentioned. I had recently begun a new job and I didn't dare tell anyone what had befallen me. People react strangely to weakness of any kind, be it of body or soul. Their behavior becomes irrational and aberrant. As soon as people know that you are ill, an alcoholic, a
gambler . . ."
I figured this was his dementedly cryptic way of letting me know he was there to settle my gambling debt. I'd met some hired killers in my day and there were two principal kinds: those who did it for money and those who did it for fun. This guy was in the latter category.
". . . those who know you either slink away in fear of physical or spiritual contagion," he went on, "or become leeches sucking on your misfortune for their own sustenance. I decided I would suffer neither humiliation. I would tell no one about my unlucky fate. I would not whine or complain about the injustice, or burden others with my needs. I would bear any pain in silence. Death for me would be undramatic, without fanfare."
I hooked my finger over the trigger, thinking, This guy can't be for real. No one speaks like that. I searched his face for some hint of what I should do. I found none. He continued his story without a hiccup, smooth like single malt.
"One evening, not long after my unfortunate news, an Indian from Calcutta who used to work here--you wouldn't know him, he's long dead--tapped lightly on my office door. I had seen him a few times in the halls and, for no apparent reason, had been terrified of him. He wore a goatee and had honey-brown skin, sparkling white teeth, and penetrating eyes. He was impeccably dressed. His lilting Anglo-Indian accent had the cadences of a lyre. He came into the room without waiting for a reply and said, `I am aware of your troubles and would like to invite you to a party.' I immediately denied any difficulties, claiming, in fact, that I was the picture of health. As the lies streamed forth, the man simply stood there pulling on his goatee and peering at me through his knowing eyes. It was not long before I consented to accompany him to his party."
The guy sitting across from me in the ascot reached his hand toward his pocket. I tightened my grip on the gun and could feel the sweat between my fingers. The room had become intolerably warm. Let's just get this over with, I thought. I wondered if I could do it, if I could actually kill a man. A white handkerchief appeared in his hand. He wiped his brow, then continued.
"On our way over to the party, I was trying to imagine which of my doctors had betrayed me--for only they knew of my so-called `troubles'--when the Indian turned to me in the cab and began to tell me a story: `Twenty years ago I was supposed to get married. I was going home to Calcutta, perhaps permanently. My parents had found me a bride with a large dowry. The night of my flight, a woman I barely knew kept insisting that my plane was going to crash, that unless I wanted to die an early death I should not get on that plane. And then she invited me to a party, Mrs. Lange's party, where I am taking you tonight.' I waited silently for the Indian to continue his story, but he said nothing. He was staring out the taxi window so I couldn't see his entire face, but what I did see of it was dreadful. His countenance was overcome not by fear or anger but by something terribly perverse. It was the look of a child who has just wrung the neck of his favorite kitten."
There was something of that expression in the ascot guy's face, which clued me in to the fact that I was just getting deeper and deeper into trouble. Listening to him tell his story was like being in a poker game in which you feel compelled to keep raising although you know you'd be better off folding. But I didn't fold, and he went on talking.
"Finally I asked the Indian if the plane crashed, and he nodded in the affirmative. After a long while he said in a quiet voice, `I am a superstitious man. I do not take predictions of death lightly. I did not go on that flight to India, which actually arrived safely in Bombay. But the flight I would have taken from Bombay to Calcutta crashed, killing everyone on board.' `What a horrifying coincidence!' I said. `Indeed,' he responded. `But that is not all I have to tell you. I did go with my female acquaintance--who the next week would tragically overdose on barbiturates--to her party on the evening of the missed flight. It was a dreary affair. The only person who took any real interest in me was Mrs. Lange, and she briefly at that. Otherwise, I simply witnessed conversations that felt as if they had been repeated a thousand times. Soon I noticed that the repetition extended to the gestures, expressions, even the idiosyncrasies of the guests. Nothing at all that occurred at that party had even as much as a trace of spontaneity. I was stunned by the group's collective solipsism, but as the evening went on, much to my terror, I began to feel lulled and then comforted by what might have been a film loop being endlessly projected onto my brain.'"
The sweat inside my shirt was cooling and I shivered. The guy from down the hall was silent for a few moments as if lost in a memory. I racked my brain trying to figure out what it was that the Indian destined to die in a plane crash, the barbiturate woman, the guy with cancer, and myself all had in common. Death, of course, but the whole human race had that to look forward to. Was it a death wish? Premature death? Some sort of fatal flaw? Bad luck? And who was this Mrs. Lange, I wondered, and what did she want? I ran my fingers along the barrel of the gun.
"I waited for the Indian to resume speaking," the ascot guy started up again. "He stared out the window, stroking his goatee, then turned to me and said, `When I was about to leave the party, my friend took me aside and whispered, "Mrs. Lange will extend your life for as long as you attend her party, which occurs once a year. When you no longer wish to come, her only requirement is that you bring her a new guest." I paid little attention to her odd instructions until the following day, when I learned what could have been my fate had I not listened to her and taken the flight.' Again the Indian was silent for a long while. `That's quite a story,' I said, in an effort to sound lighthearted and amused by his strange tale. `I have told you this story,' the Indian replied, a wry smile playing across his lips, `so that you will understand why I am bringing you tonight. You see, this will be the last time I attend Mrs. Lange's party, and I wanted to be sure that you understood the rules.' I laughed heartily at his elaborate and macabre joke. He said nothing more, only continued to pull rhythmically on his goatee, until the taxi pulled up in front of a Park Avenue apartment building."
I couldn't get over the fact that I was still listening to a guy who was playing out some Edgar Allan Poe fantasy. I mean, I knew the joke was on me. Did he really think I was going to buy this Mrs. Lange's party as a life-extension institute? I watched as he lifted his hand to his face and began stroking his chin. Without thinking, I brought my own hand out of the drawer and scratched a sideburn.
"Mrs. Lange greeted me immediately as the Indian and I entered her apartment," he went on. "She was tall and thin and elegant and had beautiful Caribbean-blue eyes which seemed to absorb me entirely. As she held me in her gaze, she seemed to be delicately exploring me from top to toe, inside and out. The sensation was so pleasurable--like fingertips quivering across skin--that I was unable to speak until finally she dropped her eyes. At that moment, I felt somehow discarded, as if, upon finding what she was looking for, she had then lost interest."
The ascot guy looked down at his hands, now folded in his lap. I glanced at the open drawer. I still didn't get Mrs. Lange's deal. Was it souls she was after? Souls these days were a dime a dozen. I'd sold mine so many times by now, someone would be doing me a favor by taking mine off my hands.
"The apartment was bright and festive and richly decorated with Venetian chandeliers, bucolic landscapes, and Persian carpets. The room was full of people talking, drinking, plucking canapés from the silver trays of passing waiters. Just as the Indian had described, however, I detected in the atmosphere an unhappy tension. At first, I thought it was a projection of my own morbid preoccupations, but as I mingled among the guests, I had the increasing sensation that there was something terribly wrong with the people in that apartment. It was as if not one of them wanted to be there, as if they were simply going through the motions, almost mechanically, of what people at a party are supposed to do. Smile here, look interested there, sit, stand, take another sip of wine."
I stared at the man before me. His ascot, the color of dried blood, was screaming a warning at me. What if, I asked myself, Mrs. Lange's party was for real? It would be just my luck to shoot this guy and kill my only hope of getting out of this mess. I was being given the opportunity to make the craziest bet of my life.
"As I wandered through the room," he continued, "hardly a word was directed toward me and, in any case, no one appeared to be at all engaged in what they were talking about or what they were listening to. I walked over to the large picture windows overlooking Park Avenue and stared out into the night. I soon had the distinct feeling that I was making the others in the room uneasy. I had often observed that a person standing alone in a crowded room makes everyone else in that room jittery. They talk louder and more rapidly, as if making up for the void caused by the silent loner. He excites in the rest an acute fear of being left alone with nothing but their own thoughts, their imaginations. The imagination has much in common with a murderer--it anticipates the inevitable."
I shifted in my chair, and my elbow hit the drawer. It shut halfway. I glanced quickly at his hands, but they remained where they were, still in his lap. I was wavering. I knew I had to make up my mind quickly. Doubt is like gossip or a virus, it spreads out of control in no time.
"I stood alone for quite a while thinking about death," he went on. "I was dying, but so, in a sense, were all those people at the party. Some sooner, some later. What struck me, though, was the idea that these people were so afraid of really living their lives that in many ways they had chosen instead a living death. With renewed vigor, I decided that for the rest of my life, however brief or extended, I would not cower in fear but would embrace each moment and live it as if it were my last. I then found Mrs. Lange and took my leave. I tried to locate the Indian, but he had apparently already left the party. The following day, a telephone call from a hospital informed me that my second biopsy was negative. There had been a mistake. There was no cancer. I also learned that day from my co-workers that the Indian had died in a hideous car accident."
What would happen if I went to Mrs. Lange's party? I was confused in the same way that I had been as a kid when I lay under the stars and wondered if I really was just a tiny bit of nothing in the vastness of it all or, worse, if I'd just made the whole universe up in my head.
"When Mrs. Lange's party rolled around the next year, I attended. When I walked in the door, Mrs. Lange, her blue eyes ever bright, greeted me once again, but with less interest. The guests were the same people, their conversation nearly identical. Now and again there would be a flurry of whispers, lowered eyes, and fingers lifted to mouths poised in delighted shock. I listened in on one such conversation only to hear yet again the gory details of the Indian's accident. Since then I have attended Mrs. Lange's party every year for twenty years. I have lived those years both in dread of attending the party and in terror of missing it. I am consumed with this dilemma. The same is true for the others. Each year we meet, eat the same food, drink the same wine, talk the same dull talk, because we have only one thing on our minds--what if we hadn't come to Mrs. Lange's party? Once in a while there will be a new guest who provides a momentary distraction but quickly becomes part of the monotony. True excitement only occurs when we learn that one of us has finally succeeded in dying."
I looked at the closed drawer and wondered when that had happened.
I watched, as if it were still part of his story, as the ascot guy from down the hall curled his arm like the neck of a swan inside his jacket and pulled out a semiautomatic pistol. There it was, the invitation to the real party. The truth of it made me dizzy and sick. I felt as if I had been dropped like a coin from the roof of a building. As for defending myself, my lucky gun had long since snuggled up without me deep in a dark drawer. I lunged for it anyway, almost as a reflex, since I knew I didn't have a chance. He fired once. A silencer dampened the discharge. My head fell onto the desk. I waited to hear more shots, but they never came. Instead, I heard the click of the door opening and shutting, and the pat, pat, pat of the man's footsteps retreating along the carpet in the hall. How could I have been such a sucker? It was raining again inside my shirt--blood this time.