Lose yourself in the crowd, he was told. Move around amongst the people like you belong, and never worry about where you parked the car. Carry your plate with your left hand, a drink tucked under your arm, and shake hands with the old ones, nod to the young, dance when dancing is called for, and never worry about where you parked the car.
He could have placed the advice to music, set the notes amongst the words like ants climbing a pole, but caught in the middle of the heaving crowd he felt like a tree in a waterlogged forest in the wind, the ground heaving with each gust, and the earthquake unsettling feeling like the whole thing was going to blow.
He reached out to Uncle Filbert and Slaughterhouse Joe, only to find one hand missing and the other in a sling, knelt well-wishes to Aunt Mame, and her curses rang in his ears. Little Ernst swung from his back like a monkey, Sadie went through his pockets for change, and on her fifth marriage Eleanor leaned like a snake on a table covered with contracts, the man she’d come with searching for a pen. The three identiticals ran through their legs like a storm, surging back and forth until the dogs got tired, and Corn-liquor Mick toasted the moon with a bottle, saying that no knew for sure what had been done. He balanced his plate on a glass, pulled a fork from a pocket, but the bite on its way to his mouth was waylaid by Sharon yanking his sleeve toward her son-in-law, pulled out his lower lip like a horse and showing him the teeth that were still in hock to the bank.
There were car accidents and miscarriages, whispered secrets like haunted castles in the rain, while around them poured beer and whiskey sours. Men gathered by the ditch for a smoke and the women lined up a chorus, kids tipped the punch bowl into the grass and slid down the slope on dinner trays. His plate was snatched by blind cousin Ron, who reeled back into the party, and like a flute-driven cobra, turned sideways and was gone. He sent a kid for a platter and accepted the cake when it came, but then his cuff was pulled to Granny Thomas, as sharp as a fox on the scent of blood and arthritic as a cane. She smelled the air and declared, but her words were lost in the accordion and the drums.
Pulled to the crowd by the strings on a guitar, he licked away the frosting from the corner of his mouth and twanged and twirled, dervish at play in the fields of the loud. The amp was broken so it only worked on high, the conversation faltered and then it died, until the police called him down from the roof where he was pointing to the sky, for he thought he’d seen a bird and it went that-a-way. They roused a ladder from the back of a Chevy van that someone had left outside the neighbour’s garage, plucked the guitar from his hand and helped him jump into the pool, and to the clamour of the feast he jumped to the deep end and ended up in the shallow clutching a bottle of half champagne and chlorine.
About half-nine the cops had drunk enough, and they set their sirens blaring to drive home safe, leaving the neighbours to twitch windows or come out to join the crowd trying to roll manhole covers down the street into the bank. The little ones were tired by the time the ambulance was called, and Granny Ambrose withered her hand into the wind; there’s a bad spell a coming, she told anyone who spoke Spanish, and it’s going to wrap up this family in a skin. Slaughterhouse Joe brought the violin out from hiding, pulled a chair up to the fire and began to saw, and when he saw the cello come out of Sinner’s truck, he put his back in a spasm and screeched out a duet. The cello lifted over the plates and sent shivers along the tangled row of backbones and spines, trembled the liquid in the glasses and trembled the grasses on the lawn, until the kids were settling in and drinks were spilled and cake was lost. Blankets were found and couples turned out from the tents, the kids were bedded down with the dogs, someone brought out some cards and they played for gin and underwear, until everyone was down to their shorts.
He jerked awake in a tangle of cords, having passed out while plugging in the fairy lights over the pool. He pulled the switch on the breaker, waved the sparks away with a paper plate, and gasps by the fence showed light through the gaps. Once he stumbled over the bricks someone had thrown in from the gate, he was caught by at least a hundred hands. They pulled him to his feet, brushed down his suitcoat and tipped back a glass, and introduced him to Filbert and Sophie, shoved a baby in his lap and took a picture, had him sign a book he’d never read.
It was just getting going by the second time the cops showed, and they never stood a chance. They tumbled out of the cars like kittens, and were tossed from hand to hand like knives. A dozen spilled drinks, some weed by the fence, groping under the stars where only god could judge, and they were down to their underpants and calling for their wives. They were stamping out a song on the sidewalk by the road when the ambulance tucked them into stretchers and hauled away their cars, and the sirens faded into the distance as the wine glasses were plucked and shrilled into high notes by someone’s cousin who had learned in the college dorm how to make singing from an edge.
At four in the morning the grandmothers were sleep, tucked into the DeSotos and Studebakers of their mind, the kids were wrapped as tight as a sandwich in a shop, and Tom was reeling from the curtain dragged over the panic in the hall. He put hands to plates like the rest, and helped put out the fire by the hedge. Found a back bedroom with not too many people on the bed, and when he woke it he fumbled for the keys. He collected the kids from the tents in the yard, and threw the spare blankets over the seats. His wife was talking with the daughter of a man in a porkpie, and he gathered her up like a bride.
They left in style, just like they’d just broke the bank, trailing toilet paper pranks from the trunk, just married was written all over their nearly-paid-off car, and the kids were waking up in the back. Some were for going home and others needed a snack, but they all agreed the house had been hung with tinsel and lit up like a tree. They not eat until Christmas, and they’d never wash the smell of party from their skin.