by Bud Webster
“Good Taste?’” The woman at the table was well-dressed, if a bit perky for my liking.
“Yes, that’s right, and this is my wife, Sophisticated Wit.”
She gave us our name tags with a bright smile and waved at the double doors behind her. “Go on in, and I hope you have a wonderful evening.”
“Thanks,” I said, peeling the paper backing off the tag and sticking it carefully to the lapel of my tailored tuxedo jacket. My wife shook her head ruefully and put hers in her evening bag; nobody really needed the damn tags, but most of us at least made the gesture.
We pushed through the doors and into the ballroom. It was full: we were, of course, fashionably late—tastefully so, you might say. There was a string quartet in one corner, sawing their way through something unutterably poppish. I’d hoped for Mozart, or perhaps even Beethoven, but no one else seemed to be bothered.
I felt a touch at my sleeve. “What-ho, my lad. Damned good to see you.” It was Insincere Joviality, whom I detested, not that it mattered to him. He grabbed my hand and pumped it three times, then said loudly, “Can’t stay and chat, I see someone over there I really must speak to. See you later on, perhaps?” And then he was gone, much to my relief.
I looked around for my wife, but she’d been spirited away by the Humor twins, Droll and Dry. They were standing with their heads together talking in low voices, then all three leaned back and laughed airily. Well, she’d be happy for the rest of the evening.
I moved through the crowd, heading for the bar. I passed Conspicuous Consumption in her Dior original and insanely flashy jewelry, and smiled at the sure knowledge that she would never wear any of it again. If I knew her at all (and I did, we’d dated in college), she’d have been driven to this do in a gold-plated Rolls. She was so predictable. But then, weren’t we all? Wasn’t that our single defining characteristic?
“Wine cooler, sir?” It was the bartender. I blinked at him and then moved so that my name tag was visible. He had the… well, the good taste, I suppose… to look abashed. “Sorry, sir. Would you care to see the wine list?”
“Thank you.” I took it and glanced at the glossy pages. “I’ll have the Pinot Blanc 1974, please.”
He smiled. “An excellent choice, sir.”
“Yes,” I said, a bit more tersely than I’d intended. “It is.”
While he opened and poured the wine, I nodded to the man next to me, whose name tag bore the name Recovering Alcoholic. He was sipping a glass of club soda morosely. “Will this bother you?” I asked, holding my wine glass up.
“Not in the least,” he said. “Don’t give it another thought.” He waved his glass towards the dance floor. “Look at him. That’s my older brother, you know. Ancient as hell and still going at it.” I looked where he was pointing.
There was a line of dancers, moving noisily and awkwardly against the beat of the quartet, led by the oldest of us, Drunken Sot. He’d been around forever, it seemed, showing up at all the parties and meetings; plump, red-faced and jolly, with the remains of an ancient laurel wreath still caught in his hair.
At least, I thought to myself, he has the good taste not to pick fights like his younger nephew, Drunk and Disorderly. We’d finally had to simply stop telling him where and when the Gatherings were. Of course, he still showed up as often as not, and whenever he did, there was trouble.
“Yes, he always seems to have a good time,” I said, a bit inanely. “Doesn’t he ever get tired?”
Recovering Alcoholic just looked at me. “Do any of us?” I didn’t answer him; it was, after all, a rhetorical question. I smiled at him and made my way through the crowd.
Off by herself in a corner—as usual—was Paranoia. She sat and watched, sat and watched. She’d been around a long time, too, but not as long as Sot. Used to be she would come with her sister, Wisdom; as a pair they were mainstays of almost any Gathering they came to, bringing an engaging perspective to conversations about current events or art. Paranoia had even managed to be sociable when Wisdom was with her, but no one had seen her sister for years. Without her, the younger of the two never danced, never spoke, never did anything but sit and watch. But she always came, afraid of missing something, no matter what. I bowed slightly to her and raised my glass, but she just looked alarmed, so I didn’t press it.
I thought back to my first Gathering, when I was just out of school. At first, I was daunted by the sheer magnitude of power and majesty the other, older ones represented. I remember how impressive War was, larger than life and so graceful; and how struck I was by Seduction’s beauty, even if I could never quite tell if it was a man or a woman. It was overwhelming, and I felt quite lucky to be part of it all.
But over the years, it became painfully obvious that all that they were, down to the last and least of them, was what was written on their tags, neither more nor less. I include myself in that, of course.
It may seem that I’ve been listening to my cousin, Wry Cynic, far more than is probably best, but that’s not the case. Why else would Wisdom leave us? Or Prudence? Or so many of the older ones? Foolishness, I remember, took me aside a few years ago and said quietly, “Taste, this is no place for me. There’s plenty of foolishness here already. You, you belong here, and you’re welcome to it.” He grinned at my expression. “Don’t get me wrong, I wish you well. But it’s time I was going.” And I never saw him again. The next time the rest of us gathered, there were three new faces present; the Humor twins and Sophy, my soon-to-be-wife.
I felt a hand on my arm and knew without looking that it was her. “So many new faces,” she said quietly. “I hardly know who to speak to these days.” She smiled tightly, and I noticed for the first time the lines at the corners of her mouth. She sipped her drink. “Earnest Zealot was holding forth on literature a moment ago, and I mentioned Oscar Wilde’s comment about the wallpaper as he lay dying.” She shook her head. “Do you know, he’d never heard of Wilde? What are we coming to?”
What, indeed? Patience, Trust, Intelligence—all gone now, or seen so rarely that their presence was like a walk-on in an old film; something to be marveled at, but of no real importance. I missed Wonder most of all, I think. He told the most breathtaking stories, made up right on the spot. They were… well, wonderful. War had gone, as well (although I suspected he was simply busy elsewhere), and no one at all knew what had become of Seduction.
I picked at a bit of lint on my lapel. We had to be here, I supposed, just so that our presence would be felt, but I sometimes wondered why? What exactly was the point? In the old days, we were clearly influential. We were there because people needed us to be, because they couldn’t navigate the treacherous reefs of their lives without us. Was that true anymore? Did we have an influence over anyone but ourselves, if we even had that? The idea was discomfiting at best.
I looked around the room, trying to enjoy the bouquet of the Pinot. When had the trivialities snuck in? When had Joy and Honor been replaced by Instant Gratification and Situational Ethics? War was off somewhere, his place taken, bizarrely, by Right-Wing Gun Nut; and most degrading of all, perhaps, Teenage Prostitute stood across the room surrounded by men, a sorry substitute for Seduction. It was a cruel, surreal jest—or so my wife and her friends would think. I had a disturbing thought: how soon might my wife be replaced by E-Mail Joke?
It was undignified, to say the least. I drained my glass, unwilling to dwell on the idea for too long. Instead, I headed back to the bar.
There was a small crowd there, most of whom I knew. A man I didn’t recognize stood to my left, wearing what might have been an exaggerated knock-off of my own formal jacket, deliberately frayed at the seams and worn over a black T-shirt bearing the logo of a rock band. Instead of dress trousers, he wore jeans. I knew without asking that they were pre-washed, pre-stained, pre-aged. Pants without an honest past, only a present. His hair was spiky, thick with some kind of preparation, and there was some kind of tribal-looking tattoo on his wrist. His name tag read “Post-Modern Chic.” I turned away, suddenly cold.
“Yes sir, Mr. Taste,” the bartender said with a smile. “Another glass of the Pinot Blanc?”
“No,” I answered wearily. “Not this time. Just a wine cooler, please.”