Christmas in the Minor Key
The only full-length mirror hung in his smelly study. For a week now Elliot Tischler had meant to empty the wastebasket, which brimmed with ashes, orange peels, and the scraps of a dozen sandwiches, but there had been no time. He had never been busier. Success was time-consuming. Even now, when he ought to have been savoring his preparation for Cara Foster's annual Christmas party, he could think only of how late he would be. He actually wanted to be late -- had planned on it -- but fashionably so. Now, unless he hurried, his arrival would be reduced to a mere faux pas.
His green bow tie wiggled hastily in place, Elliot stepped away from the glass, but rather than make a last-minute check of his holiday outfit -- red vintage tuxedo jacket, white slacks and suspenders, a green cummerbund dotted with reindeer -- he was drawn irresistibly, as he often was, to his own face. He knew only too well what awaited him there. The choice he had made five years before, fresh out of college, to devote himself entirely to his work had wrecked what little beauty he had ever possessed. His skin was chalky, his brow showed lines, and the rings beneath his eyes were black and the size of half-dollars. He looked not at all like a young man anymore. And his body was no better. He was gaining weight, daily it seemed. His hips were fatter than ever, almost as wide as his shoulders, and his stomach edged over his belt like melted ice cream.
Elliot glanced back at his face in the mirror and in an effort to dam the wave of self-pity he felt rising inside him he clenched his jaw and whispered: "Great men are meteors that consume themselves to light the earth." If anyone at the party was heartless enough to comment on his looks, he would use this as his riposte. Let them grapple with Hardy for a while; it would give him time to escape. But, then again, perhaps no one would dare utter a word.
He looked back at his face, forced a smile, and decided to console himself. Many of his peers were already balding, but his hairline was thick. His teeth, though a tad jaundiced, were straight and sound. His eyes were tired, sure, but they were also large, blue, and kind. And, more important than anything else, he was becoming famous. How distasteful could a face be when it adorned book jackets in a dozen countries? Elliot extended his arms, pointed a toe, and imagined that he was on his way to a fashion show of outrageous Christmas wear. He threw his head back and grinned convincingly. Sure, he was overdressed, but he was young, gifted, and queer -- flamboyance was expected of him, practically required. It was the first prerogative of his station.
Time was everything now. Elliot turned resolutely and headed to the door. If he left immediately, he would arrive at the party only two hours late, still within the bounds of decorum. For many of his classmates, it would be the first time they had seen him since his career had taken off. Elliot hurried through the apartment, swiping off lights as he went, imagining the splash he would create. The failed writers in the group -- and there were sure to be at least a half dozen -- would naturally be the most deeply envious, the most keenly hungry for his attention. Some would shrink away and strike an aloof pose, hoping that their indifference might distinguish them. Others would advance and try to flatter him into a discussion of his first novel. But he would tell them what he told everyone else: It will be out in the spring. Buy it and tell me what you think.
At the door, Elliot wormed into red patent-leather loafers, threw his overcoat across his arm, and stepped into the hallway. But then, as he slipped his key into the lock, he remembered. He swore, rushed back inside, and on a low table found a slim paperback book.
Nancy, the older of the two blonde sisters and the less pretty, tilted back her glass and spoke into a spill of ice. "I can't believe it. It's like everyone we hated at school came over in one big bus."
"Even Missy Dawes," her sister Pam said. "And she never comes to these."
"Yeah. She's too busy being bored."
Kenneth, the leader of the group, a sturdy young man with slicked-back hair and a bright, confident smile, lay on the bed next to Pam. "Do you guys know what Missy said to me tonight? Do you know what I actually heard her say?"
"What?" Pam reached across him and tapped her cigarette ash into a cup of eggnog. "I doubt I'll be surprised."
"Well--" He laid a hand on the small of her back. "I mentioned that Timmy temps at my firm."
Timmy, a frail young man with red hair and freckles, lying on the floor, face down on a pile of coats, was already shaking with tipsy laughter.
"And Missy said, 'Timmy Westlake? I thought he was an actor.'"
Everyone broke out laughing, except Reg, a striking young man with jagged features, who sat bunched in a wicker chair, flipping through a Victorian novel which he had plucked from a shelf. He frowned, took off his gold-rimmed glasses, and rubbed the burgundy slashes on either side of his nose.
Kenneth went on, his mouth screwed tight with amusement: "And so I explained to dear Melissa that not everyone in the city has a massive trust fund, that some people are actually forced to take jobs that have nothing to do with their art."
He chuckled mischievously and crossed his hands behind his head. "It took some doing, but she eventually believed me."
Reg smiled, his eyes back on the pages of the big book. "Did she ask you why? Did she ask you why the whole world doesn't have trust funds when it would make everything so much easier?"
In the distance, a Christmas carol came to an end with clapping, and, almost at once, "Come All Ye Faithful" began, played in mournful chords on the piano.
"Oh God!" Nancy garbled, cracking ice between her molars. "What a jerk!"
"They should cut his hands off," her little sister snapped. "That's what they'd do in Iran."
"It's Gil Cook," Kenneth explained, glancing at Reg, who was clearly confused. "He's playing in the wrong key. He does it every year. He thinks it's funny."
Everyone listened for a moment to the dour progression of the carol and to the laughter and shouting it inspired.
Reg murmured sadly, "Is nothing sacred?"
Everyone smiled as though he were joking.
"Hey, where's Elliot Tischler?" Timmy asked, his red curls popping up from the pile of coats. "I heard he was going to make an appearance."
"Yuck," Nancy said.
Pam dropped her cigarette butt into the eggnog and at the same time blew a plume of silky smoke: "Are we supposed to give a shit?"
Kenneth addressed the ceiling with a superior, wistful smile. "Dear Elliot. Old Walrus Hips. I knew him when he was just a lad."
"He was Young Seal Hips then," Reg muttered.
Kenneth turned to him. "Oh, that's right. You knew him back then, too. He was your roommate, wasn't he?"
Reg blinked. "Freshman year."
"Could we please stop talking about him?" Nancy asked, leaning over and shaking Kenneth's foot. "I totally hate big hips on guys."
"I wonder what he looks like naked," her sister mused.
"Stop!" Nancy cried. "I'm gonna barf!"
"His short stories are what make me sick," Reg said. Timmy was up now, swiping at the wrinkles on the front of his shirt. "But, unlike his hips, people love them. In eleven countries."
"Twelve," Reg countered. "You obviously haven't bumped into any of your Portuguese friends lately."
"I don't care if they sell a billion copies," Nancy said, opening her purse. "He's still gross to look at."
"His stories are always about gays," Pam noted matter-of-factly.
"So? So?" Timmy lisped, throwing a hand on his hip, bugging his eyes in comic outrage. "What's wrong with that?"
Before anyone could laugh, Reg snapped the novel shut, his eyes fierce. "Everything, if you believe Elliot. His stories are so filled with self-loathing, they're almost readable. When I got done with his book, I threw it out the window. I'm serious. It was either that or myself."
The depth of Reg's animus surprised everyone. He saw it and looked away. When, after a few seconds, no one spoke, he concluded, more controlled than before: "His stories aren't smart or significant or even entertaining. And they sure as hell aren't honest. He pollutes everything he touches."
Staring into the vanity mirror, Nancy penciled a shaky line beneath her eye. "All I know is, he's a lot more successful than we are. Which means he's doing something right."
"Bullshit," Reg snapped. "Success means nothing. Neither does failure."
Wagging a finger, Timmy transformed himself into a disapproving school-marm: "There's a bee in your bonnet, young man!"
"Hey, that's what a critic should have," Kenneth said, kissing Pam's neck, making her laugh. "Bees. Whole hives of em."
"Is that still what you want to be when you grow up, Reg?" Nancy asked, turning from the mirror with a bored, dreamy look. "Some sorta critic?"
Reg ran a hand through his dark curls. "Yeah. But, first I've got to find something worth criticizing."
"What do you mean?" she replied. Elliot's stories. Criticize his stories."
"Like most of what passes for literature these days, they don't need deconstruction. They need demolition."
"Whoa!" Kenneth grabbed Pam by the waist and squeezed until she burst out laughing. "Reggie is so bitter!"
Reg tightened his jaw and his eyes grew heavy. He seemed older suddenly and vaguely ashamed. "Serious criticism should be applied to serious work created by serious people."
"Elliot's serious," Timmy insisted. "He works really hard."
"A serious artist gets better with time," Reg explained. "Elliot won't. He can't. He's only concerned with himself. He's a narcissist and a liar."
Before anyone could respond, a roar sounded from the other room. Within a few seconds, an obese girl in a black dress stumbled into the doorway, winded, drunk, and laughing so hard that she could barely speak.
"You guys! Elliot's here! And he's gonna read to us! I swear! One of his stories! He insisted! He's, like, setting up chairs!"
Timmy grinned. "This I gotta see."
"Give me a break!" Nancy groaned.
"He obviously misread the invitation," Kenneth explained. "He thought BYOB meant Bring Your Own Book."
Everyone but Reg laughed.
The girl held onto the door for support. "He's gonna read some gay Christmas story!"
"Oh, no!" Pam shrieked. Then she smiled at Reg. "Nothing is sacred!"
Kenneth adopted the breezy tone of a book reviewer: "Ah, yes, 'Goodwill Toward Men.' The final tale in his collection. A Harvard freshman, who bears a startling resemblance to Elliot, brings his roommate back to his family home in Shaker Heights, Ohio for the holidays. High angst and suburban mayhem ensue as our hero reveals to his parents that he and his young pal are very much in love and intend to make love together that very night. Under their very roof!" Kenneth laughed, then buried his mouth into Pam's neck and growled.
"Help!" she cried, pushing him away. "I'm being violated!" "Come on!" the fat girl urged. "You have to see how he's dressed. It's awesome. He looks like a Christmas tree."
Nancy dropped her eyeliner into her purse. "What does that Jew know about Christmas, anyway?"
"A lot," Kenneth said. "All his boyfriends are Protestants."
"Well, I'm gonna listen and I'm gonna pretend to like it." Timmy scooted across the pile of coats. "I think we owe him that."
The group rose and moved to the door.
Kenneth stopped and looked back at Reg, his hand on Pam's shoulder. "You coming?"
Reg forced a smile. "No, you go ahead."
The rest filed out.
Kenneth, confused, moved to Reg and spoke gently. "Are you sure? What's the matter?"
"I...I can't listen to Elliot read."
"Aw, what's the big deal? It'll be over before you know it. And we're all gonna hate it."
Reg dropped his head. "Actually, that just makes it worse."
"Makes what worse?"
"What do you mean?"
Reg looked up. His eyes were pained and pleading. "None of it's true. That wasn't the way it happened."