Gathering

Why had he gone way out there, twenty-four freeway miles from his house, for the holiday, the sense that on a holiday--or worse, since it was not the holiday yet but an advance party for the holiday to come--the sense that for a holiday something, even something he knew would be uncomfortable--awkward, as he was made clumsy by the demands of social intercourse--something must be done.

He could not sit at home pitying the poor. Not again this year.

But it was unseasonably cold, and there was something--sleet, freezing rain, they called it something different every time--crystals of it all over the road.

Coming out from the city, of course, there were some cars in the ditch. An abandoned pizza delivery car, logo on its door, by the side of the road. Was each delivery vehicle a discrete unit, each driver free to quit, to determine when the end of food had arrived? What sort of dereliction was that?

--You know what your problem is, Jack? Dick said.

--That I live without intent? He said.

Dick had given him a glass of wine when he had come in. He did not usually much care for wine, but this, he admitted to himself, was very good wine.

--That you're not clever, Dick said.

It was true that Dick's house was much bigger than his. And the yard. Okay, the yard was three or four times the size of his, but Dick's was on a slope. Trees, sure, but the whole thing sloped. His yard was flat.

--What do you mean? He said. I'm smart. In college I knew all kinds of shit. Ask anybody who was there with me.

--What if, Dick said, somebody stuck a gun in your face?

--Somebody did once.

--What did you do?

--What could I do? There was a gun in my face.

--You always pause, Dick said. Somebody says something to you, it takes you a minute to think of what to say, like you're an idiot. Then you come out with your lengthy, brilliant analysis.

Dick shook his head.

There was music, seasonal, in the background and food too. Cheese, crackers, snack treats.
A ham, he had heard, that came in the mail from another state.

--I used to, he said, when I was young, a teenager perhaps, have fantasies of power.
I pretended I commanded money and groups of armed men. But now I can only imagine an idealized isolation--some snug cabin in the
far woods.

--You did? Dick said. All I dreamed of was those creamy-skinned girls and what I would do when I could lay my hands on one.

Dick laughed and turned to talk to another guest.

What should a forty-two-year-old man expect? He had long since settled in, and now there was no hope. No hope, no possibility. Only opportunity, he heard from the television. Now would begin the opportunity society and all the--what was the word--opportunists--would have their day.

A woman he knew, he had met her last summer in the same house, she had told him she worked as a publicity person for a big agricultural concern--turkeys? hogs? corn?--and he could not for the life of him remember her name, this woman came across the room. She wore an expensive-looking black dress and her hair was piled high on her head.

He smiled and said, --I read an article that said over in Ireland they're seeing the holy statues move.

--Never goes out of style over there, she said.

--And here?

--I don't think we'll be seeing anything. She walked away. He turned and watched her go. High heels.

His cousin had called. This cousin was in a cult that seemed to be preparing for some sort of mass suicide, and this cousin was always trying to get him to sign on.

The cult's great promise was that everything would be reversed.

He had not actually seen this cousin in years, but every few months this cousin would call. Sometimes this cousin would mail literature--garish comic-book-like tracts steeped in gore and justice.

This cult did not have anything to offer him. When he had been in a jam, he had not called this cousin. He asked his friend Charlie would Charlie get the Buddhists to help him out.

--It's no good anymore, Jack, Charlie had said. They're just like the Catholics now.

--I am a Catholic, he said.

That had been last year. First he was sick and he could not eat. Then he could not stop eating. Was that, too, sickness? And a part of the same sickness or was it a new sickness, a different one? Certainly there was discomfort. There was pain, but he understood discomfort to be the more appropriate, the more medical, term.

There was to be a dinner and toasts and some activity in which each diner revealed something about himself. He walked around the table and looked at the place cards to see where he was seated. He knew no one on the cards near his and wondered if this would be like another time, years ago, when he had found himself between the last remnants of the Catholic left.

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