Stetson had careened like a cue ball through the whole raucous evening of his party. Host extraordinaire, he had obliged all comers. Asked to dance, he danced. If the music needed changing, he manned the platters. When someone suggested martinis, Stetson fished the olives from the door of the refrigerator.
Because he had been partaking liberally of various intoxicants, he periodically performed what he thought of as "reality checks."
He would slip into the bathroom, lean over the antique, chipped sink and peer into the mirror. If he didn't find a scarecrow-faced stranger leering back at him, he considered himself to have passed the reality check.
Leaving the bathroom after the latest check, Stetson found that the crowd had begun to thin noticeably. The party had hit its zenith of noise and confusion and was now obviously downshifting. Soon the only ones left would be insomniac keg-draining diehards and hangers-on.
No matter -- it had been a great party complete with all the requisite elements of fun: deafening music, a dazzling smorgasbord of mainly illegal drugs, general intoxication, and enough athletic dancing to require days of muscle recuperation. But Stetson was no more ready for the evening to end than a bulimic is to leave the Thanksgiving table: his eight-ball had yet to find its pocket.
About this time, Joni Ricketts came to say good-bye. She floated out of the darkened living room, where several rollerball, spike-haired couples were bouncing to a Bow Wow Wow record popular that weekend, onto the wide, generous front porch to where Stetson stood with several keg-hangers, sipping beer, passing a fifth of Beam and cursing punk rockers.
Joni put a bony hand on Stetson's arm. "Going now, super party, had a great time," she said as she wafted diaphanously down the steps and half the distance of sidewalk out to the street.
"How're you getting home?" Stetson asked.
"You can't do that."
"I'm coming with you."
"You don't have to do that. You still have guests."
"I'm coming with you," he repeated.
"Hold on a sec."
Stetson turned back into the house, shooting a glance at Riddle where he sat rocking silently on the porch swing. A homicidal grin spread like a rash across Riddle's face.
Inside he grabbed a half-empty jug of California red, noticing as he did that his girlfriend Olivia, forgotten early in the evening, lay sprawled fully-clothed across their bed, snoring.
He dashed back out the front door before anyone could ask him where he was going or delay him with their good-byes. He met Joni at the curb. They walked along a broad avenue that led from Stetson's neighborhood downtown along which stately Victorian houses, once dominant, now stood cheek-to- jowl with convenience stores, daycare centers, and laundromats.
It was very late, nearly four, and a cool, light breeze had sprung up and lifted their hair behind them as they walked in silence. Strolling with Joni through this quiet, slumbering city filled Stetson with a dreamy weightlessness. He stopped walking, swigged deeply from the bottle, and passed it to Joni who took an equally hearty pull. He watched appreciatively as the muscles of her throat moved rhythmically up and down.
She handed the bottle back and they resumed walking.
"Good party," she said.
"You thought so?"
"That's all that counts," said Stetson facetiously. Joni chuckled politely.
"Everything okay with you guys?"
"I guess. We fight a lot," said Stetson, telling a marginal truth. In fact, they fought only occasionally. The rest of the time, they ignored one another, but Stetson felt the need to cast the relationship in a harsher light.
"And you? Any prospects?"
"Oh. One or two," said Joni, effecting a coy, eye-batting gesture.
"I'm not surprised," said Stetson. He felt his face flush as Joni turned to look at him. He caught her eyes briefly, then turned away. They met in a college class several years before, found they had friends in common, and had been good friends ever since. During that time, each had served as collaborator, confessor and commiserator to the other's unsettled love life. Tonight he saw her differently.
They turned the corner and walked past a grand colonnaded mansion that sat atop a crest down from which an obsessively manicured lawn declined on each side toward retaining walls that ran along the sidewalk. Stetson stopped and looked up toward the house.
Joni said, "Well?"
"Come on," he said, vaulting to the top of the wall and reaching for her hand. Stetson pulled her up onto the top of the wall and, still holding her hand, ran up the lawn until they almost reached the porch. He plopped down onto the grass under a spreading live oak tree.
"I don't know, Stetson," said Joni, biting her lip and looking reluctantly at the house.
"It's okay. They're lawyers' offices."
"Never," she laughed, dropping onto the grass beside him, her leg touching his. He laughed too and helped himself to a great glug from the bottle.
From the crest of the high lawn where they sat, they could see the downtown spread before them with its motley assortment of bank towers, church steeples, and older stone and brick buildings. Light from the street lamp broke through the trees to dapple the shade with medallions of counterfeit moonlight that spilled down the lawn, across the sidewalk, and into the street.
"It seems so perfect," said Joni, reaching across Stetson for the bottle, her arm draped lazily across his chest. He caught her elbow and pulled her toward him. She smiled slightly and allowed him to brush his lips to hers. She laughed nervously and pulled away against the light pressure of his hold.
"We should behave," said Joni.
Stetson sighed. "Yes. Olivia." He let go of her completely. She wrapped a languid arm around him and patted his shoulder as a mother would a child.
"I'm done with Olivia."
"But you're still together."
"Does she think so, too?"
"Hard to say what she thinks."
He drank but the wine tasted like mud. He offered the bottle to Joni. She shook her head.
He said, "We've been friends for a long time."
"How come we never...?" He paused. "You know."
"I don't know. Maybe we thought it might ruin something special."
"Did I ruin something just now?"
"I don't know," said Joni. "I'll have to think about it."
At once all the booze and drugs of the evening came crashing down on Stetson. His head began to swim and he felt nauseous and faint.
"Better go," he croaked, staggering to his feet. He felt ten years old again and stepping off the merry-go-round, at the motionless, dizzying vortex of a madly spinning cosmos that stretched away from him out to the edges of the Milky Way, tilting dangerously with each slight movement of his head.
He managed to walk down off the lawn, but the face of the night had changed. He became mortified at the thought of puking in front of his old friend, worsening a situation he already found intensely embarrassing. He felt the old reliable emotion of self-disgust returning and all he could think of was getting drunker, partying more. They walked the short blocks to Joni's apartment, a tiny carriage house, the manor which it once served having long since been torn down for parking.
"See you soon," said Joni, planting a tiny kiss on his hot cheek. She bounded into the house and Stetson started back.
The sidewalk rose up too quickly and he felt as though he were running. Maybe he did run, because his own house appeared before him almost at once. The urge to retch had passed and his thoughts returned to revelry. He regretted the episode with Joni, but he had a drunk's confidence that come tomorrow he could put things right again.
The house was dark and still but for an orange glow floating on the front porch. Riddle sat in the swing where he had been sitting when Stetson left with Joni. Stetson stopped on the sidewalk, weaving visibly.
"Well, asshole," said Riddle, "you manage to get your dick wet?"
"Shut up, you swine. Where is everyone?"
"They went home. I should, too."
"No," said Stetson. "Let's do something."
"Fun's over, partyboy," said Riddle. "What did you have in mind?"
"I don't know,"
"Of course you don't. You've killed more brain cells tonight than most folks are born with." He rocked for a few moments, then flipped his cigarette butt so forcefully that it cleared the yard and bounced into the empty street, where it burst apart in a shower of orange sparks. "How about breakfast?"
"Now you're talking!" yelped Stetson. He reeled a broad step backward into the grass. "Lemme hit the head first."
In the bathroom, Stetson leaned on the sink and tried to square his shoulders for a reality check, but he kept slipping from side to side. He looked into the mirror where his disembodied face floated like a conjured visitor at a seance. Every pore seemed a crater and his eyes had narrowed to bloody slits. His lips stretched over his yellow teeth like the mouth of a corpse.
The dawn wind blowing through the windows of Riddle's pickup truck began to cool Stetson's fevered brain. Riddle's truck was a mess. Coke bottles rolled across the floor over piles of yellowed newspapers. Empty cigarette packages and fast-food trash littered the seat. Reams of papers were folded and rubber-banded behind the sun visor. Stetson didn't notice a thing.
Riddle listened unsympathetically to the whole story of his walk with Joni Ricketts, occasionally shaking his head and grunting.
"Do you think I really fucked up this time?"
"Would serve you right."
"I guess it would."
They pulled into the parking lot of Hill's Cafe. Even though it was not yet six, the lot was jammed with cars and trucks most in worse repair than Riddle's. Riddle and Stetson piled out of the truck and started toward the front door along the sidewalk that ran the width of the building.
Suddenly, without warning even to himself, Stetson tumbled over a scraggly box shrub and fell in a heap onto a narrow strip of St. Augustine grass between the sidewalk and the building. He lay next to an old buckboard wagon bereft of seat and spring that served as someone's idea of appropriate decor for an all-night redneck diner specializing in greasy breakfasts, club sandwiches and tough steaks.
Riddle regarded Stetson without trace of sympathy. He shook a cigarette out of a crushed pack, lit it and let a cloud of blue smoke waft away to join the grease and smoke hanging above Hill's.
Stetson looked up at the rust-rimmed wheels of wagon with the incomprehension of an infant.
"Well?" said Riddle. Stetson looked up.
"Coming where?" said Stetson.
Stetson looked puzzled. "Why do you say that?"
"Because you are one."
"Get up," said Riddle.
"Do I have to? It feels so good here."
"Suit yourself," said Riddle and started to move off.
Riddle stopped. Stetson said, "You just gonna leave me here?" He looked up at the wagon. "Here in the goddamn O.K. Corral?" He started giggling like a twelve-year-old at a slumber party.
"Jesus, Stetson, get your ass up off the ground. For chrissake, take a look at yourself. What the hell's wrong with you? Someone might think you had real problems or something."
Stetson looked up at Riddle, wanting to answer, but unable. He loved Riddle like a brother and his disapproval was crippling. He had always appreciated Riddle's honesty, and felt all the worse to find it directed at himself. He wanted more than anything to spring up, to prove himself. To prove Riddle wrong. But the grass was cool and soft and, with the weight of forced merriment lifted, he felt more depleted than he could ever remember.
A thin, middle-aged, weathered man in western clothes stalked down the sidewalk, pausing when he came to where Riddle stood. The cowboy cast a cold eye down at Stetson, then up at Riddle, his face pinched into a squint under the brim of his hat.
"Drunk," he said, summing up the scene.
"Adjective as accurate as noun," said Riddle, nodding grimly.
The cowboy looked suspiciously at Riddle and went on his way, shaking his head.
Stetson knew that standing would not absolve him of the crimes of the evening, but along with a big breakfast and pots of coffee, it might break the spell of self-absorption under which he had languished for what seemed like years.
He rose and stepped over the hedge back onto the sidewalk. Riddle nodded at him much as he had nodded at the cowboy a moment before.
Standing at last, and with sober voice, Stetson looked at Riddle and said, "I think I'm finally ready." They stalked into Hill's Cafe, where Stetson ate like a plague of locusts or a man returned from the dead.
Mark Smith (email@example.com) lives in Austin, Texas. His first book of short stories, Riddle (Argo Press) won the 1992 Austin Book Award. His first children's book, Slosh, was scheduled to be published in 1997. (This biography written in 1996.)
InterText stories written by Mark Smith: "Back From The West" (v2n5), "Reality Check" (v2n6), "Slime" (v3n1), "Doing Lunch" (v3n1), "Snapper" (v3n2), "Innocent Bystander" (v3n3), "Sue and Frank" (v3n5), "The Hard Edge of Things" (v6n2).
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 2, Number 6 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1992 Mark Smith.