JEREMY PACKERT BURKE / LEAVING THE PARTY
Denis and Valentine met only at parties; nowhere else. As if she was Persephone, and he was the Spring.
The parties were Sasha's. Each had a theme, each theme had a rule, and each rule was inevitably broken. Every party had the same people, so everyone could always find one another. Denis and Valentine took comfort in this—the knowing.
The 2008 Party was first.
the 2008 party
The rule: Come Dressed As You Did In 2008. Denis had not read the invitation closely and came in a rubber John McCain mask.
Did you know that since 1988, whichever president has had the most Halloween masks of their face sold has won the election? His voice is muffled behind the battered, faded, Republican shell. Valentine does know this—everyone knows this; it's been written on the billboards, written in free community newspapers all over the city. She is dressed in a purple shirt and purple canvas shoes and big plastic bracelets that click together like teeth when she moves her hands. She is self-conscious, keeps pushing her hair behind her ear. She believes she still looks fifteen. They must make quite a pair, the old rubber man and eternal child making conversation before the table of half-empty High Life bottles, scattered and at odds with each other like chess pieces. She kisses Denis before she has seen his face. Latex bunched up in her hands to reveal his thin lips and sweaty jawline. But when he reveals the rest of his face, she is pleased. A song on the radio goes: Smooth like a gun/it's all virtual, baby.
outside the parties
When not at the parties she often found herself pursued by a large crowd of dogs with their tails all tied together, as, it is said, sometimes happens to rats. He was the King of Dogs. The King of Dogs moved back and forth through the city, toenails scrabbling for purchase. It looked as if the King of Dogs could not stop.
Outside the parties, men with toy guns would fire them at the sky and stand around with their hands out, waiting for the rain. As if misunderstanding cause, and effect, and rain. She hurried past them on her way to work at the post office, afraid.
She liked having things come in the mail, liked the sense of waiting. The possibility when she opened the little brass door to her mailbox each night.
When not at the parties, he built instruments out of refuse and sold them to tourists in the middle of the city. Handcrafted, his sign said. Some people paid him good money and he spent it all on gas station food and novelty cribbage decks.
He liked exhibitionist fetish porn—couples screwing in public places. When she asked if that's what he wanted, how he wanted to conduct their sexuality, he scowled: Conduct—like an orchestra.
the murakami party
The Rule: Everyone must eat pasta, play with cats, drink scotch, be a mysterious woman, have shapely ears, sleep with their mother, listen to Liszt, and live in a well. They dig tunnels between their wells, their way lit by elegant lighters they find in the dirt. People have lost so much, says Sasha as she sifts another ornate bronze Zippo from the earth and hands it to Denis. They sit in little pools of light like luminaria. Valentine dreams of hot cocoa and firesmell, of cats batting balled red paper that crinkles deeper as it rolls.
Denis brings a different deck with him to each party. He sets up the board, the deck, the fake money, the pewter pieces, the small glass cages, the heart-shaped boxes, the tangle of disused catgut strings. The tombola, the wine glasses tuned to different pitches, shakers for salt and for pepper and for sugar. An electric buzzer that sounds like a duck or a vibrator. They sit at a space between their wells, crouching over the cards and constituent pieces as Denis unloads them from his cribbage sack. I don't think I'd like to play anymore, Valentine says, feeling a bit sick for inscrutable reasons. Denis insists on teaching her the rules, makes flowcharts on the backs of napkins. But she cannot master all of the moving pieces, cannot hold them all in her mind, can only see a few at a time in the dark. I think if a game contains more parts than you can visualize all at once, it's impossible to play, she suggests.
outside the parties, part 2
When not at the parties, she writes notes to him on thick, cream-colored paper, taking pleasure at the way black ink fills the space, constellations inverted. She smiles as she works, as she describes grasses and flowers of complex beauty, birdsong in curling inkstrokes. She saves stacks of notes and binds them in string, in lucerne, in disused coaxial cable. Anything that makes them stick together. She presses them into his hands when she sees him, which is to say: at a party.
When not at the parties, he nurtures trees that grow her favorite fruits—oranges, peaches, mangoes. He arranges them in ziggurats and hands them to her one at a time, like calling cards or fliers for a comedy show. She takes a bite and juice flows down her wrist, disappearing into the recesses of her shirt, the folds of her body.
the disaster party
Valentine is an earthquake, her floor-length ochre dress neatly ripped along a diagonal, revealing the black depths of her leotard beneath it. Denis is the Hindenburg, a shimmering silver disco-suit dirigible with a dozen lit sparklers spitting sparks from his body. Periodically he throws handfuls of plastic people from his pockets, voicing soft, high-pitched screams for them. No! No! He is very serious as he does this. The symbolism of our costumes is horrible and obvious, thinks Valentine. Me, a gaping chasm; him, a huge phallic fire bomb. It verges on poor taste. A pile of plastic screaming people has accumulated at Denis' feet, plastic mouths permanently locked in Os of horror. The stereo plays synthetic sounds of crashing cars, imagined metal and glass smashed to pieces.
Two men play a game where they run into each other has hard as they can, falling backwards like plastic blimp victims, laughing. Others take turns. This game is called “Human Chicken.” The name gives Valentine disconcerting Hansel-and-Gretel vibes, and she does not wish to play. Somebody keeps saying This night is a shambles. Valentine coaxes Denis out to the fire escape, and feels that they are the beginning of a joke—Two disasters walk onto a fire escape. There is, perhaps, more embedded symbolism in this. She doesn't think about it. She kisses Denis, sees but does not feel the bright yellow sparks, the shining hot pieces of metal that disappear from her, that join the night as they bounce from her arms and neck.
the King of Dogs speaks
The King of Dogs hurtles down the street outside the party, spinning and barking past a broken circle of smokers, past the two disasters on the fire escape. You believe your anxiety will prepare you better for the eventual heartbreak, for the death of your parents, for the collapsing world, but it only extends these things into the past. Valentine is not sure who the King of Dogs is speaking to, or if it's a single dog's voice or dozens. Everyone watches as the King of Dogs goes by, spinning like a pinball and barking.
they reach a decision
Denis says: Would you like to meet for a drink sometime? Outside? He hunches slightly, aware that he is asking for a rule to be broken.
Valentine says: There are drinks here. There is everything here. It is a party. The world is cold and patrolled by a thick knot of dogs that, just this week, ate an entire basketball court, parquet and hoops and netting and all. The parties are safer.
I wish I could see you more often.
I do too. But this is the only place.
They take a vote. They decide to never again leave. It is unanimous.
They set up a bed, build it like a fort that children make. They use debris, soft pieces of cloth, strings, lights. It rests on a frame of glass and colored water. The intoxicated masses come and marvel. See how the light plays through the shifting waters. Denis and Valentine stand barefoot on their bed and beam.
The party moves to the pyramids on the edge of town. Everyone sits in ornate bathtubs which roll on little wheels down one pyramid and up another; periodic, like a skateboard on a half-pipe. Little by little, water splashes out from Valentine's tub revealing the red cloth of her dress, stained darker than sunsets by the soapy water. She is left to wonder if she will ever dry. She tracks Denis' movements as best she can, but his bathtub is smaller and has moved faster from the outset, will move faster until they both are still. Sasha sits in a tub of the same size as Denis'—they ride in tandem. Valentine wants to ask to switch places but cannot figure out how. Denis asks Sasha if the pyramids are hers; she says they are. Or, they aren't yet, but will be soon. She has several lawyers working on it. The day will come when the Pyramid Man will pay up, Sasha says aggressively, as a mob boss or sous chef might. Denis raises his eyebrows slightly. Arches like careless cartoon birds.
The incline of the pyramid is smooth beneath them, sandstone blocks of enormous size joined perfectly, held by time and gravity, by fearsome majesty and a legally binding contract. The King of Dogs rides by in a vast round tub of pewter. It barks Irony is amusement at the world's conspiracy against you. It is necessary to survive but otherwise pointless. The King of Dogs crests the pyramid and launches its bathtub into the air, disappearing into the dark sky above.
After lots of thought and gauging, Valentine leaps from her bathtub into Denis'. She lands only to find it empty of him or water. The rolling bathtub comes to a halt between two pyramids and Valentine falls asleep there, alone under the stars. When she follows the party home the next morning, she does not ask Denis where he has been.
the King of Dogs speaks, part 2
In the brief interruptions, the moments when she steps into the whispery cloud of city, to breathe free of the parties' febrile air, she finds she can always hear the King of Dogs, moving closer or further away.
There is no functional difference between celebration and consolation.
Not every thing can be done but every thing can be undone.
A flame is a light that breaks everything into pieces small enough to float.
Yapping aphorisms to the moon, to the black and scarry sky, to the spaces between houses. Is it following her? Someone else at the party? She lets herself believe the positive messages are for her and the negative ones for someone else. Sasha, maybe.
She takes comfort in the horoscope wisdom of these voices. They are self-evidently true; a reassurance that the world is still a world.
The next party is a murder mystery party. Denis and Valentine are cast as the trophy wife and rich estate-owner respectively. They stand around with their friends in expensive evening-ware, saying things such as I couldn't possibly and Don't you think? and We shalln't ever get the stains out of the antimacassar. Everyone drinks too much and they go off script. They decide to try to channel the ghost of the victim, use a Ouija board to ask who killed him. For all of their candles and crystals, they do not see a ghost, although Valentine does see Denis' hand resting, softly and overlong, atop Sasha's on the Ouija's planchette.
Later they stand on their bed and the party turns around them like a moon. It's okay if you
feel something for Sasha, Valentine says, only I would like to know what it is.
There were feelings there a long time ago, Denis says. And sometimes one forgets it is the
An imagined King of Dogs narrates her thoughts, now; if you listen to anyone talk for too
long they will become your brain, subvocal. There is no difference between believing you feel
something and feeling it in fact.
She can imagine herself saying Guess we summoned some ghosts after all, and shaking
his face roughly. Squeezing his mouth into pucker.
She loves Denis. Loves their bed in the middle of the party, the string and clothespins
which they have used to suspend postcards from far-off cities in garlands all about them. But she wishes he would not talk in circles, like a dog that cannot stop moving. She tells him so.
He apologizes but still she sleeps uneasily. The song on the stereo goes: Don't eat me, man/I'm just the night janitor, and the partiers dance on and on and on.
Valentine and Denis wake to workmen in yellow jumpsuits pulling down the walls, hauling them away on battered handcarts. Putting all the glassware in boxes, lowered to the ground on pulleys. Friends dressed as horror movie heroines are mulling around the hallway, still holding their beers and discussing where to go now. Four men hold the corners of the mattress while another four move the frame out from under it. The mattress comes to rest upon the floor like a mismanaged flying carpet. Where is it all going? Valentine asks. The day hangs blue beyond the frames that no longer hold walls. She can see a bird flapping through a burst of exhaust as if it is trying to clear the air. She can see a man arguing loudly with his phone, gesticulating with a bagel. She can see a place across the street where a building burned down, a black space from which no light escapes; the place the night sleeps. Sasha lost the lawsuit, a man in yellow says. The Pyramid Man is taking it all, to pay his legal fees.
Can we come? Valentine asks.
What are your names?
Valentine tells him.
The man in yellow looks through a many-paged manifest, searching his itemized lists, his burdens written in code. Doesn't look like you're on here, he says. I think he mostly wants the parties to look at, show off around the holidays. Or maybe he's trying to get a monopoly. You never know with the Pyramid Man.
Denis and Valentine stand sadly on their mattress as the floorboards are ripped up around them. They can see the sweaty man who lives in the apartment below drinking orange soda. He does not look up and it feels as though he is avoiding them.
Denis speaks first: Surely we can—
You know that we can't.
But do we need the parties? They were always finite.
We needed them because they were finite. To prolong things in spite of their ending is the definition of absurdity. The King of Dogs had said that at some point, scrabbling between two bridges, towering over cars like a raincloud of fur.
Our friends are already dispersing to the edges of the earth, never to be seen again. Must we really lose each other too?
She begins gathering the various detuned instruments that Denis had crafted from red party cups, rubber bands, lengths of hard salami, impressive bits of dust and glass, and bronze fasteners.
What if I see you on the street? What am I supposed to say?
We could never see each other elsewhere.
I'll miss you.
I'll miss you too.
Outside the abandoned, empty walls of the apartment she can hear it beginning to rain, can see a man with a toy gun and outstretched hand nod affirmatively and go inside, out of sight forever. She can feel droplets blown between the enormous absences, dusting her face and her shoulders. The weather pulling her irresistibly into the world.
She kisses him gently on the philtrum, feeling his lips brush but not purse against her chin. Valentine leaves before him, knowing that she must.
leaving the party
At her apartment she brushes dust from the doorstep. She hums softly the rhyme her grandmother used to sing. Home again, home again, jiggity jog. Quiet, buzzing rhythm. The King of Dogs sits before her sofa, panting softly with his many heads, a thousand tongues lolling about, scattering spittle like stars. You stopped moving, Valentine says.
I had to sometime.
She scratches a German Shepherd behind the ears and he licks her forearm.
The simplest machines are the hardest to break, says the King of Dogs. Please scratch my ears again.
Valentine scratches. The air hangs with the thick smell of fruits that were once her favorites, left behind and now rotted. Her mailbox is full; who knows how many letters and packages have been returned unopened. She still has boxes of lovely stationery, which she knows she will write letters with no address. This is a thing that hurts: to write letters signed “Love,” and leave them undelivered until they are no longer true. Tears cluster around her eyes.
Some things, like cribbage, have more rules than can be known, more pieces than can be visualized at once, voices that cannot be picked out from a horde. Some things carry blank spaces in the maps of themselves. Sometimes things must stop, she now knows. But she can see, hiding in the mass of fur and fangs, a dusty, fraying leash. A coiled cotton promise that one day these things will move once more.
Jeremy Packert Burke is an MFA candidate at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa. He has previously had work in Day One, the Nashville Review, and SmokeLong Quarterly among other places. He exists on Twitter @jempburke.