Fiction by Snowden Wright
With each second closer to midnight the crowd seemed to grow more effervescent. Men checked their pocket watches and then loosened their semi-butterfly, rounded, pointed, or straight bat-wing bow ties, while the women who’d worn their hair up let it down, petals falling from their wrist corsages to the floor with the turbulence. After the Peabody Hotel jazz quartet ended its rendition of “What’s the Sweetest Thing Around? (Panola Cola, I’ve Found),” the screech of blowout horns erupted from distant corners of the lobby.
“And how is my big brother this evening?” Lance asked, trying to appear as carefree as everyone else.
Monty straightened his gig line, a habit since the war. He wondered how to respond. Oh, I’m doing fine. Just got back from almost sleeping with some bartender, he considered confessing, repercussions be damned. The poor guy was not happy when I told him I couldn’t go through with it. Called me a tease and a coward. The bartender may have been right about the first insult, Monty would admit, but he’d been completely wrong about the second one. His decision to leave the room was not an act of cowardice but rather one of fidelity. All the blame lay with that damn pipe. The clanging noise had reminded Monty of distant gunfire, rat-a-tat, pop-pop, pop-pop, rat-a-tat, which in turn had reminded him of Nicholas. That was why he’d told the bartender he couldn’t go through with it. “Just a little tired is all,” Monty said to Lance. “It’s been a very long night.”
“You’re telling me.”
Midnight was thirty seconds away. The two Forster brothers looked out at the assemblage of what would be described the next day as the bon ton of the American South. Both men fell quiet at the sight.
In the St. Louis Dispatch, editorialist Rufus Terral once wrote, “Mississippians . . . are said to believe that when they die and go to heaven, it will be just like the Peabody lobby.” It seemed as though everyone at the gala that night would have agreed. Near the elevator bank Lucien Sparks Sr. held his sleeping son, small head on large shoulder, thin arms around thick neck, a trickle of drool at the corner of the boy’s mouth garnished by a smudge of peanut butter, the result of a present he’d been given by the Knapp brothers of Knapp Family Snacks, each of whom had been intrigued when the boy, Lucien Sparks Jr., mentioned he liked to sprinkle salted peanuts into Panola Cola. At a table behind the bandstand Wilhelmina Johnson slapped her husband, an action brought about by what she had caught him doing with Florine Holt, whose sequined dress had made her exit with Delmore, known as “Hotcakes” for a reason, all too easy for everyone at the gala to notice. And on the mezzanine overlooking the lobby, Harold Forster, his cheeks traced by dried tears and his brow striated with thought, sat alone at a small table, oblivious to the screams of “Three! . . . Two! . . . One!” from below.
He was playing solitaire. The game helped keep him from dwelling on the duck. Harold, who could never remember the actual rules, set down a queen, then a six and seven, then an eight and nine, and finally a king, to complete his favorite design. On the table lay the same mosaic of cards that, years later, he would have arranged before him when his heart, which had always beaten with furious pride at any slight to his family, stopped.
That night at the Peabody Hotel, though, Harold’s pulse held a steady count. He looked over the handrail, studying the hourglass dresses and sharply tailored tuxedos, the various boutonnieres blending into a pointillist collage of gardenia-white, cornflower-blue, and carnation-red. What the hell was everybody hollering about? Why on earth was everyone kissing each other? Harold watched confetti rise like bubbles in the air and fall on the shoulders of his family. His siblings were dispersed throughout the crowd.
Ramsey sat on a sofa near the fountain. She was reading a stack of paper, cigarette in hand, smoke leaking from her mouth. It must be a really great story, Harold figured, what with how little she blinked. Over by the bar, his brother Monty was drinking some kind of cocktail. He held the glass in one hand and tucked in his shirt with the other. If Harold had to guess he’d say the drink tasted good. Just look at the way Monty closed his eyes with each sip. In a corner near the bathrooms, Harold’s brother Lance stood alone with a pack of cigarettes. He was staring at them. He’d quit a long time ago, Harold remembered, because they stained his teeth. Tonight had to be a very special occasion if he was tempted to pick up the habit again.
Harold took one last look around the lobby, the sight of his brothers making his chin quake, the sight of his sister making his shoulders cave, before sitting back down with tears in his eyes. He could not find a tissue. Harold put his face into his hands as “Auld Lang Syne” echoed through the hotel. He was crying because of his family. Never in his life had he seen them all so happy.
From AMERICAN POP by Snowden Wright, published by William Morrow. Copyright © 2019 by Snowden Wright. Reprinted courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers.