a short story
NOVEMBER HAD BEEN A GRAY MONTH to arrive in the vast hollows of the city, a period when the dark clouds that hung constantly overhead shut out what little daylight managed to filter into its deep concrete, crevasses. The tops of the buildings seemed to be a division in time, as well as a division in matter. The artist, looking upwards, wondered what had drawn him to this saddened, heartless place.
Everything around him appeared colorless to John, as if he was looking at black and white photographs in an old historical text. The similarity was, for him, real rather than metaphysical. As he walked the city’s streets, John could not help having the impression that he was turning the pages of an old photo album put together for tourists in some earlier time. Despite the glamour of this city frequently portrayed in its tony magazines, John’s wanderings in the relatively empty streets of his downtown quarter were as sterile and pointless as they had been in the small Pennsylvania city that he had moved from.
Uptown the drab buildings rose to undefined heights and drew one’s attention to a sky that forever emitted a shoddy, faded light, which caused only faint shadows that did not define anything—where noonday looked like twilight—and the winds found their way down the long avenues with an everlasting moan.
Notwithstanding his scorn of it, John was attracted by the tawdry charm of the uptown. He felt that for all its pretense that section of the city had a sense of self-parody, its cold and impersonal inhabitants rather self-conscious of its role, were eager to live up to its cosmopolitan aspirations. Uptown was also where they held “the banquet.”
Ever since John Redochre had heard of “the banquet,” he had wanted to go, but he was new to the city and did not know how to get invited. In the meantime the leaden days continued to pass in dull shapes and blurs and John continued to work on his paintings, and at his paying job, unsure why he had come here to struggle at making his way in the world.
One evening, when John was standing having his dinner at the migrant hot dog cart stopped on the corner of his street, an old friend from art school, Alan Gimcrack, happened by. Hailing him, John invited Alan to join him at the cart. They had not actually been friends in school; but had been bonded by the fact that they looked almost alike. John’s friends sometimes thought him to be Alan by mistake, and Alan was on occasion taken to be John.
Alan was happy to see John, perhaps almost genuinely so; however, he said that he could not stop to eat as he was on his way to “the banquet.” John was impressed by this fact, and had to try hard to conceal his jealousy. Alan, who had always been considered by John to be a lesser artist than himself, revealed that he had been dining at the banquet for several weeks now. His first exhibition of paintings at a rather respectable gallery had received good reviews in the local newspapers. Shortly thereafter an invitation to the banquet had come in the mail.
When asked, Allan told John that he did not know who had sent him the invitation. The only way one could be invited was if one had been recommended; however, it was not clear who made the recommendations, or to whom they were made, and why they were given. Redochre pressed his friend on the matter, and Alan promised to mention John’s name to the majordomo, who seemed to have considerable influence, and who he thought might pass it on to the appropriate people; although he said that he was not sure he had been going to the banquet long enough to be allowed to make recommendations. John stared at Alan’s face, almost his face, wondering that if someday, when he knew Alan to out of town, he might just show up and, presenting himself as Alan Gimcrack, be allowed admittance to the banquet.
Three years went by, during which time John, worked hard at his job and his paintings. He learned the appearance of the seasons in the city, and as the city changed so did he. John had come to understand the city’s daytime and its darkness and it was this reciprocity that prevented, in him, the flight of those dreams that he had held on to so strongly when he first arrived.
And then one great and undulating autumn day, John returned home from work and found, to his surprise and delight, an invitation to the banquet in his mailbox. He was not sure why. Although his paintings were popular with his peers—John was considered an artists’ artist—he had only ever exhibited in group shows at minor galleries. Nevertheless, he was overcome with happiness by his invitation. Forgotten were the long weeks of depression, working at construction jobs without Sundays or holidays, in decaying buildings in an impoverished cityscape. The very next day, John stood in front of his mirror dressed in his finest clothes, checking his appearance. Deciding that he was suitably attired, John Redochre headed uptown.
The banquet was held in an immense room that must have been the ballroom of this hotel in its more opulent past. Looking around, John could not find his friend Alan, who he had not seen much of these past three years, but a number of the other faces seemed familiar. These were the people one crossed paths with at gallery openings and making the rounds on those rare Saturdays when he did not have to work. After some searching around the elaborately set tables, John found a place with his name on it, although his last name had been misspelled, an unfortunately common occurrence, transposing the final “re” to “er.” While this greatly annoyed him, John chose to ignore the matter, something he normally did not do, but was afraid to create any kind of disturbance. He was happy to just be actually here at the banquet.
He had no more than sat down when the seat next to him on the right also became occupied. Turning to the newcomer he spoke: “Hello, I’m John Redochre.”
The man looked at him askance, unwilling to make eye contact. He mumbled something that sounded vaguely like: Hello.
“Are you a painter?” John asked enthusiastically.
“Yes,” the man answered turning his face to John. “You are a painter too?”
John stared at him in surprise. The man could have been his brother, or his exact double, or Alan Gimcrack’s double. “Yes,” he said.
“Rotten luck . . . then I can’t talk to you,” the man said, waving his finger in front of his mouth.
“Because I only come here to talk to art dealers or collectors.”
“And are there dealers and collectors here?”
“Can’t talk to other artists,” John’s double on the right said, waving his finger again and making a shushing sound.
“Why?” John Redochre persisted.
“Because you’ll steal my ideas. . . .”
“But how can I steal your ideas if we are only talking about them? Ideas need to be made into something tangible . . . to be seen.”
“Look, I don’t want to talk to you. Like, why don’t you talk to him,” John’s double on the right said, pointing to the man who had just take the place on his left. That spoken he turned to the person on his right.
John turned to the person on his left: “Hello, I’m John Redochre,” he said cheerily.
The man, who appeared to be checking the cleanliness of his fork, turned to John, who was surprised to see that this man too was his exact double, and a double of Alan Gimcrack, and a double of the man he had just met seated on his right. “So?’ he said rather dourly.
“Are you an artist?” John asked.
“Then we can talk?”
“We can . . . but I might not want to . . . it depends who gets seated on the other side of me.”
“Because I am a collector . . . I’m here to meet famous artists, and to try to get good deals on their work. I buy direct, if you know what I mean. . . .”
“Do you think we look alike?”
The man stared at John’s face. “No, not really, and I have a good eye. I’m a well-known collector, you know. What did you say your name was—Redlocker?”
“Redochre, with an ‘re’ on the end . . . John Redochre.”
“I can’t say that I’ve ever heard of you. Who’s your dealer then, John?”
“I don’t have one . . . but I have been in several group shows.”
Just then a waiter, dressed in formal attire, appeared and placed a bowel of soup in front of John. He sniffed at the soup, wondering what kind it was as he had not seen a menu or ordered anything. He took a spoonful. His taste confirmed that it was French onion. When he looked back up John found that the art collector on his left had turned, and was talking to the man on his left.
John ate the soup with unction, with the seriousness due a great banquet feast. The smell of food filled the room. And after he had used pieces of bread to wipe up the remains of the broth from his bowl, he pondered in silence the possibilities of banquets yet to come. As he sat patiently waiting for his next course, John’s eyes surveyed the occupants of the large room. He studied the cut and color of their clothes—the ones he could see were mostly wearing black—and their manner. These dark figures, splashed here or there by an occasional tint of crimson or yellow, crowded the tables and seemed to fill the room with a sense of gloom. Intent on their feeding they formed a disparate, undulating forest that covered the entire floor, which, with the intrusions of the waiters, seemed to constantly fall apart and then rejoined itself.
John looked down at the table, which had gone out of focus, thinking how unfortunate it was that at his young age his right eye had begun to lose his near vision. Glancing left and then right he saw that the man on his left was conversing with the man on his left, and that the man on his right was conversing with the man on his right. He closed his bad eye and looked down at his bony hands, and then glanced left and right again. As much as he disbelieved what he had seen, he could not convince himself that these two men did not look very much like him.
“Huurumph. . . .” The man seated across the rather wide table from him had made a sound, John looked up. Although he had been aware of his presence, John Redochre had not paid much attention to the man until he had made his noise.
“You look rather familiar,” the man said, wiping his mouth with a napkin.
I should, John thought to himself, if the man had ever seen his face in a mirror. The man looked exactly like him; the same hard, prematurely wrinkled skin, the same desiccated long face, the same deep eye sockets, the same receding hairline, slightly graying at the temples, even the same slightly too small ears.
“What’s your name?” the man across from John asked, without revealing his.
“John . . . John Redochre, with an ‘re’ on the end."
“Redochre . . . with an ‘re’ on the end,” the man repeated. “I can’t say that I’ve ever heard of you . . . are you someone important?”
“I’m an artist, a painter. . . .”
Suddenly, and without a warning, a gong sounded; and everyone stopped talking. A man appeared at the head of the stairs and read out a list of names, and then announced “These persons are now required to leave the banquet, as they have been invited for the soup course only. Before you go please check with the majordomo, who will be at a desk by the door.”
Much to John’s disappointment, his name had been on the list that was read out. Before he could protest, a waiter removed John’s dishes, silverware, and napkin, and pointed him toward the door. John had tried to finish his wine, but the waiter snatched the glass from his hand. On the way out the door he waited at the end of a short line to see the majordomo, as he had been instructed.
“Your name, please?” the majordomo asked when John stepped up to the table.
“John Redochre . . . spelled with an ‘re’ on the end.”
The man consulted his list. “The only such name I have on my list ends in an ‘er.’
“Yeah, that’s me.” John replied nervously. He had overheard the persons on line in front of him being told whether they could, or could not, come back tomorrow.
“But you said your name ended in ‘re.’
“Well, it’s sometimes spelled that way, I mean by mistake, like I’ve seen it either way. I’d rather have it ‘re’ maybe you can correct it.”
“All I can do is go by this list, I can’t change anything,” the majordomo responded rather sharply. “Perhaps you are here by mistake.”
“No, it’s no mistake,” John said, his voice revealing a bit of panic. “Here’s my invitation, and my driver’s license . . . see the photo looks just like me. There’s no need to change anything; I’m John Redochre, ‘er’ or ‘re’ or whatever. . . .”
The majordomo looked at John’s bona fides and then scratched his head and smiled, “Well, you are the last person on line. So I don’t suppose any other Redocher is going to appear. Then I can tell you that you are invited to come back tomorrow.”
“Oh! Thank you! Thank you!” John said gushing. He put his hand out to the majordomo. The gesture had an esoteric solemnity.
The man ignored John’s extended arm and got up from the table, his list in one hand and his red and green pens in the other. Nodding his head in the direction of the door he said, “Good night, sir. The door out is that way. Until tomorrow then. . . .”
Nonplussed by what had just happened, John left the hall, considering what a fathomless, elemental bore, his first night at the banquet had been, and undecided if he should return again.
Nevertheless, his curiosity aroused, the next evening John put on his newly purchased black garments and returned to the banquet. Circling the tables looking for his name tag, he did not come upon either of the two men that looked like him that he had sat in the middle of last night. And while he tried not to stare, John did find a man who he though looked like what he might look like in ten or more years, if he lived that long. Then his heart leapt with joy; there was his place, and someone had corrected the spelling on the name tag: John Redochre, ending in “re.” He sat down. Underneath his name tag was a folded piece of paper. He picked up the note and unfolded it. Something was hand written on it in green ink, the same color that he remembered the majordomo using last night to check off the people on his list who were returning. The names of those not invited back had been marked in red. He held the paper up to his good eye and read the words: The most corruptive element to the human spirit is wounded pride.
A man sat down on John’s right. A quick glance told him that it was the same man from last night, the artist who did not speak. He felt a bump on his left, someone was pulling out the chair next to him—it was the collector from the previous night. “Oh! Pardon me,” he said.
“Oh, that’s quite all right. We met last night. . . .”
“We did? I don’t remember you. What’s your name?”
“John Redochre,” John replied. “You didn’t tell me your name . . . only that you were an art collector. But I never forget a face.” But he wasn’t sure of that now. The man still looked like him, but older, more like his father.
“No, I don’t remember you . . . don’t recognize your name either. . . .” And then a bowl of soup was put in front of the man and he began to eat it loudly without saying anything more.
A bowl was placed in front of John, which he recognized as being pea soup, with a dollop of yogurt, or perhaps sour cream, on top. He fell into eating it, trying not to look at the fellow across from him—who also looked like his father.
He had just finished his soup when the same thing happened as on the previous night. A list was read out. John’s name was on it, his place setting was removed, and he was shown the way to the door. This time he had had the foresight of drink his wine and gobble down an extra roll before the names were announced. As yesterday, he waited on line at the majordomo’s table by the door. This time he had stepped lively and was not last.
“Name? . . . “
“Redochre, with an ‘re.’”
“With an ‘re,’ yes, I have you on my list. We had another Redochre here last night, his name ended in ‘er.’"
“That was me. . . .”
“No, it wasn’t you. He did not look like you at all. Besides, his name ended in ‘er’ and he was told not to come back.
John recalled last night’s conversation and shuddered, maybe he wasn’t supposed to be here after all.
The majordomo looked down at his list, and then back up at John and smiled, “Mr. Redochre, with an ‘re’ isn’t it? Yes, you are invited to come back tomorrow.”
“Thank you,” John said. He did not bother to offer his hand as he had done last night, but turned quickly and headed out the door.
The splendid colorlessness of fall had been replaced by the darkness of winter. These were for John, long days of depression, tedious weeks of more work that he wanted, again without Saturdays or Sundays off. The pigments on his pallet were drying up, the painting sitting on his easel rarely worked on. But he had become a regular at the banquet—if only welcome at the soup course. John Redochre had discovered that if he ate his bread and finished his wine quickly, more bread would be brought and his wine glass refilled. He could usually get three helpings of bread and three glasses of wine before the soup course was ended, an amount of food most often enough to satisfy his hunger. He would have no need to stop at the hot dog cart on the way home.
The horoscope in the discarded newspaper that he had absentmindedly read while having his modest lunch that noon had predicted favorable astrological conditions for John Redochre. He smiled at the notation: You will receive a pleasant surprise. He did not take such things seriously.
It was the third day of the third week that he had been attending the banquet. John had rapidly finished three helpings of bread along with his soup, and was signaling hopefully for another glass of Valpolicella. Not paying too much attention, he was preparing to leave, when he realized that he had not heard his name read out. As he hesitated, a waiter reached over his shoulder and placed a steaming dish of Risotto con Fungi in front of him.
John gazed around the room. There were numerous empty places, but the people who remained took no notice of their departing comrades, and were happily eating their risotto. As John dug his fork into the rice and mushrooms, a waiter took away his empty red wine glass and replaced it with a fresh glass of white—the soup course, Minestra d’ Erbe Maritata, had been made with a beef base.
That year the end of winter, disagreeing with the numbers on the calendar, seemed to come particularly early. John had been dining nightly at the banquet—the soup and the first plate more than enough to satisfy his appetite. The menu varied: Italian one night, then French, and after that Greek, or Hungarian. He no longer wolfed down three helpings of bread with the soup, but did take three glasses of wine, and three more with his first plate.
John was a vigilant and attentive observer—but not a prying fellow—of the somnolent human chatter of the life going on around him in the hall. People had ceased to all look like him, although John did occasionally come across his double, or father, or brother, an inaccessible situation, which he did not dare discuss with any of the look-alikes. He was left to helpless musings about his early days at the banquet.
There seemed to John to be a small core group of people that he recognized as being there every night, and that stayed on after he left. These people regularly appeared in new outfits, in what he assumed to be the latest fashion and were constantly surrounded by photographers, who took pictures of them posing, hugging and kissing one another. They were always seated together at the far end of the hall. John frequently searched for his name tag in that area, but he was never placed there. Mostly, however, there was a constant turnover of new people—who served as a background for the fashionable people—and who came for a few weeks and then were never seen again. Nevertheless, wherever John was seated, no one ever made more than small talk as they ate—there seemed to be an unwritten rule that forbade any serious conversation among the guests at the banquet.
The majordomo knew John by sight now and when he stepped up to the checkout desk the man would look down at his list, and then look up with a smile: “It’s Mr. Redochre, with an ‘re.’ Yes, we will see you again tomorrow. Good night.”
On the third day of the sixth month since he had begun attending the banquet, John Redochre, having consumed his first plate, was happily sipping his Frascati, considering the great number of faces that had come and gone, when the list was read. Lost in his thoughts, John had not heard his name called out, but by habit was getting up to leave, when a waiter placed a sizzling plate of Scallopine al Marsala in his place, and a glass of Barbaresco.
As he stuck his fork enthusiastically into the succulent veal, John happened to look up. The man who had been sitting across from him apparently had heard his name called and left. His empty place was now being filled by a woman. John was surprised. There were never many women at the banquet, certainly not in proportion to their make up of the population. He had wondered about this discrepancy. And now there was a woman seated across from him, not just any women, but someone who could have been his sister, or mother at a younger age, or himself as a woman.
“Hello. Mind if I sit down? They told me to move over to here,” the woman said a bit apologetically. “Everyone else at my table had their name called, and I was sitting there all alone. . . .”
“No go ahead. . . .” the man on her left muttered, munching on his veal and not bothering to look up.
“Neyaah. . . .” the man on her right mumbled, slicing at his meat.
“Please do,” John said who, if nothing, was polite. He tried not to stare at the woman’s face. “I’m John Redochre.”
“Yes, I know. You don’t remember me, but we were friends many years ago. . . .”
“We were?” John was a bit frightened by the woman’s revelation, who he still did not recognize, except perhaps as his sister, or his mother, or himself as a woman.
“Years ago we worked together in a department store in downtown Wilbender. . . .”
“In a store called Barrels?” John said, some dormant corner of his brain beginning to awaken.
“You were the girl in the shoe department, weren’t you!?” John recalled excitedly.
“That’s right . . . and you asked me if I wanted to go out for a drive with you some Sunday. And I said yes.”
“It all seems to be coming back to me now.”
“You were disappointed when you came to pick me up and I said that my mother had to come with us.”
“Yes . . . I remember it now. We drove to a hospital somewhere way up in the mountains.”
“It was a sanitarium . . . my father had tuberculosis,” the woman continued, adumbrating her story.
“And your mother didn’t have a car . . . so we took her there to visit him,” John added.
“That’s right. She was so happy. She hadn’t seen him in quite some time. . . .”
“I remember that.”
“There was a little chapel there by the entrance, and we went inside and prayed.”
John stole a glance at his slice of veal, which was getting cold. “Yes, I remember it now,” he repeated again, although he wasn’t actually sure that he did.
“We went up to the room my father was in and talked for a while . . . and then we helped my father into his wheelchair, and my mother took him outside and pushed him around the grounds.”
“I don’t remember going for a walk around the grounds with your father. . . .”
We didn’t . . . you and I went down to the chapel and prayed for a little while, and then we went out to your car. You fucked me on the floor in the back.”
“It wasn’t very good. It was hot, and your car was rather small, and the back seat was filled with junk, drawing pads and boxes of colors and stuff . . . you were sort of an artist or something you told me. I was afraid that someone might walk by and see us.”
“And did we go out again after that?
“No. Like I said, it wasn’t very good. And I thought that you were rather weird . . . being an artist and things like that. I only had sex with you to pay you back for driving me and my mother all the way out there to see my dad. And besides, my father died three days later.”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear about your father, you never told me that back then,” John said, putting his head down and slicing his veal.
The gong rang. A man appeared and began to read out the names of the people who had to leave. John sliced another piece and was chewing frantically when he heard this name. The woman across from him smiled and continued eating. A waiter arrived and reached for Redochre’s half-finished veal.
“Can you put that in a doggie bag,” John asked.
“I’m sorry, sir. We’re not allowed to do that. You will have to leave now.”
John glanced over at the woman—an old friend?—that he had been talking to. She did not look at him, but was concentrating on her food, almost pretending that she did not know him. “Well . . . goodbye, Miss? Mrs.?”
The woman looked up and smiled, and then waved with that hand up in the air little wave that people use when dismissing someone. Her gesture and clothes told John that she must have become someone of importance. “Goodbye, John Redochre,” she said without revealing her own name.
As John walked away he turned to look at the woman one more time. She was out of the range of his bad eye, so he closed that one and squinted to focus his good eye. Strangely, she didn’t look like anyone he remembered, nor did she look much like him anymore. Perhaps his first impression of the woman was only an illusion. And perhaps the story she told him of their past was only a fiction. He didn’t really remember any of it. The whole conversation seemed to have been topsy-turvy. When he thought that he was remembering John Redochre found himself thinking of something else.
The banquet had freed John, illusorily, from the tedium of his existence. One thing clear was that he was becoming fat. He no longer had any other social life outside of the banquet. Even though he was required to leave after the second plate, the banquet consumed his every evening. John was able to work on his paintings for a short time when he returned home from the banquet, but in the morning he usually slept late, having consumed too much wine the night before. He had quit his regular job and taken part-time work in the afternoons, as he did not need to spend that much on food anymore only rent. John thought that working part time would give him more time for his creative work; however, he sadly discovered that this was not the case. John no longer found the excitement in working on his paintings that he had experienced when he first arrived in the city. He felt that he was not creating anything new, but merely repeating himself. John had believed that there was no disillusion in art because illusion was one of its basic principals. But he had awakened from this dream and was now paying the penalty for having once enjoyed what he was doing. He no longer delighted in leaving behind him a trail of things that he had made. John Redochre could no longer remember what his life was like before he had been invited to the banquet.
On the third day of the ninth month that he had been attending the banquet, John did not hear his name called after the meat course and a salad plate shortly appeared at his place. It was almost an anti-climax; besides which he did not care much for salad as it frequently upset his stomach. Also, John found the order of the courses somewhat confusing, as where he had grown up the salad was customarily serve as the first, not the last course.
Although John only picked at his salad, usually leaving most of it, the time was good for two more glasses of wine, or a third if he drank fast. In any case John saw the salad course as another accomplishment. John noted proudly that few of the people who arrived managed to stay through to the salad course, and even fewer still were the faces that he remembered from his very first day at the banquet.
At the time all the talk, outside of the banquet, was of the recession. Nevertheless, whoever or whatever was providing the funding for the banquet did not seem to be suffering from the economic down turn as their largess did not seem to be greatly diminished. Although John had not ever counted the tables, tonight there seemed to him to be three less. Pondering this while waiting for the serving to begin a vaguely familiar person sat down across from him. John focused his good eye, attempting to place the newcomer, who must have read the vague expression on Redochre’s face.
“John! It’s me. . . .” the man exclaimed.
“You? Who?” John asked, leaning forward and squinting.
“It’s me, Alan Gimcrack. . . .”
“Alan? It doesn’t look like you . . . my eyes must be going bad. I need to get them examined, John said. “But I never seem to find the time. Artists need to have good eyes. If you have bad eyes you end up making paintings that look like Cezannes.”
“It is me John! How the hell are you?”
“I’m fine,” John replied reluctantly. This man couldn’t be Alan Gimcrack, John thought, Alan Gimcrack looks like me, and this fellow doesn’t look like me at all, or is this what I look like these days. I haven’t seen myself in a long time.
“I’ve been out on the coast for a while . . . almost three years.” Alan said sounding rather boastful. “Had a couple of big shows there . . . one in LA. A lot of movie stars came to the opening.”
“That’s nice,” John said, trying not to make too much noise while lapping up his soup, which had just arrived.
“Yeah, a lot of our old friends from school came to the show too. Like, I didn’t know that so many of them were out there.”
“I remember that we had a quite a few people in our class from California back then." John interjected. "They all wanted to come east to study art. I remember one girl especially, Anita Newhouse. Boy . . . was she hot! I took her out a few times. All she ever wanted to do was fuck. You probably fucked her too; I mean she must have screwed every guy in the school at least once. Like ya didn’t run into her out there did ya?”
“Yes I did. As a matter of fact . . . I see Anita quite often these days.”
“You don’t say . . . how’s that?” John asked.
“I married her last year. She’s my wife. . . .”
“Oh. . . .” John’s face flushed. The incorrigible improviser, master of the imagination, held up short. He could think of no words to undo his colorful fantasy of remembrance other than: “Well . . . congratulations. I hope that you two are both very happy. . . .”
Alan was about to reply when the gong rang. Everyone stopped eating to listen. The names of those who had to leave were read: “Gimcrack, Alan. . . .”
John kept his head down, unwilling to make eye contact with his dismissed friend.
“But I used to stay until the dessert,” Gimcrack protested.
“And you have been out of town.”
“So . . . I had big exhibitions on the coast. . . .”
“But it wasn’t here. They think that here is all that matters.”
“So I have got to start at the bottom again?”
“You are lucky that you were invited back at all,” John said, trying to sound like an insider, while spooning up the last of his soup.
“Well, it’s a rather tiresome way to spend an evening anyway,” Alan commented grudgingly as he walked away.
John was dallying over his Insalata Verde, knowing that he would be leaving soon. But when the list of names was read for the fourth time, his name was not on it. He was sitting there thinking that he had misheard, when his salad plate was removed and a dish of Tartufi di Cioccolata was put in his place. John smiled secretly to himself; he had achieved dessert course status. Even John Redochre had moments of vanity when he succumbed to self-congratulation.
Three weeks later John was invited to remain for liqueur and cigars, which were served in another room—men only. The few ladies present went somewhere else and did something he was not aware of.
Although he did not smoke, John felt so privileged to have arrived at this the highest state of the banquet that he now puffed on a big Havana, without actually inhaling, while he slowly sipped his brandy, aping the gestures of the other men as they lounged in the large, high-backed leather chairs, or milled about the room making droll, but polite conversation. There seemed to be more talking allowed at this level than at the lower levels, the men treating each other as equals, while yet maneuvering to establish a clear pecking order. John couldn’t help wondering what went on the room that the women had retired to.
“How long have you been taking the liqueur? Your face looks new to me, and I’ve been coming for nine months now,” asked a man who had not introduced himself. John recognized him as the author of a best-selling novel from having seen his face on a poster in the window of a bookstore he passed on the way here—a book John didn’t intend to read, so had not bought.
“Really! Nine months. I’ve only been coming for the past six months. How long did it take you to get to the final course? It only took me three months. They say that there are people who have been coming to the banquet for years and still haven’t been invited to stay for liqueur and cigars. . . .” butted in an aggressive, young sculptor whose face John recalled from a mailer that he had received for the man’s exhibition at a posh new gallery, a show which John had not seen and did not intend to go to.
“I used to come here quite regularly years ago . . . but then I wasn’t invited for awhile,” confided a playwright whose photograph John remembered seeing just last week in front of a theatre that was doing a revival of one of the man’s earlier plays, a production John might have liked to see, but found the ticket prices to be much too expensive.
Trying not to cough from the cigar smoke, John Redochre talked about his own show of paintings, his third in the city, but the first at a gallery of any significance. The show had gotten mostly mixed reviews from people who did not understand the work. He had gotten a rave review in a local weekly newspaper from a friend of his from art school who had given up painting and was now writing art criticism. None of John’s paintings were sold, however, a major, but out of town, museum had bought one of his drawings.
John had only three weeks of taking the liqueur and cigars. Six weeks later he was no longer welcome at dessert. Another nine weeks and he was off the meat course. He did have another six months on the first course and soup; which ended for him on the same evening.
“Good night Mr. Redochre,” the majordomo said looking down at his list. “I am sorry, but we will not be seeing you again tomorrow.” The man had not smiled at him as he held the door open for John.
Betrayed by who, or what, he did not know John Redochre retreated from the scene of his once glory. There was no one to point out his mistake. Without uttering a final word, John began his walk toward the kingdom of his former splendor, an exile into the grayness of the ordinary world. On the way he repeated this litany to himself: John, be sensible; John, your life is not over; John do not be obdurate; John, there are other banquets in the world. . . .
Here, at least, are the intelligible facts regarding John Redochre’s attendance at the banquet; proofs positive of John’s genuine satisfaction with himself. The untamable thing that the banquet now was, it always had been. Although John had once enjoyed the banquet to the full, he later ignominiously denied any satisfaction in it. “I have nothing to do with this kind of approval,” he said. “I only went to the banquet for the free food.” Things were different now—when, in fact they remained the same.
John now reclined on a bench in a park in the center of the city between evening and night, the time he had previously spent at the banquet. Wherever his eyes looked he could see nothing of the outside world, as the tall buildings filled the whole circumference of his gaze. The city had become John’s home, where he was most alive, most aware, and most content. He knew everything now, yet recalled nothing of those historic times when he had been invited to the banquet. As unaltered as the stars, his mind gave ballast to the irrepressible. The great, inviolate, banquet had an ancient permanence that even the city could not claim. The city changed, the landscape changed, the people changed, but the banquet remained.
Although he was no longer invited to the banquet, John Redochre was satisfied, for he had been there, and perhaps he might be invited again. He was, however, not quite sure that he would accept an invitation the next time—if it came.
This evening the gray gloom had descended sufficiently over the city to confuse the tops of the buildings. It seemed as if the river and the land had become one. The air was unusually warm for the month of May, and the bleating of the fog horns on the few boats that still plied the murky water was all that punctuated the steady, dull rumble that was the sound of the metropolis.
“If it is true that when an art defines its own present as history it has come to an end; what then is left? Have we become so fascinated with progress that we fail to recognize that every step forward is also a step on the way to finality?” With a slyness showing on his face, John spoke these words into the swirling mist, as he and his friend Alan Gimcrack walked along the damp street leading from the park. Overhead, the moon, that grand transmogrifier, stood motionless in her phases, as the strobe lights of an airplane offhandedly passed her by.
John and Alan, dressed in their plainest clothes, eating standing at the hotdog cart on the corner, drinking their beer from cans wrapped in brown paper bags, told each other how extraordinarily happy they were.