It was often said in certain circles of town that no event could hope to match Jerry Ulkridge’s New Year’s Eve parties. The entire year was spent in anticipation of what the next one might feature. Could he possibly beat the ice sculptures of ’21? The champagne fountain of two years back? Would the first chairs of the symphony make an appearance again, performing in their elite quartet? No one could say for sure, and many would have fought or even killed to find an invitation nestled in the corner of their mailbox, promising admission to those merry, oh-so-exclusive wonders.
So it would have shocked anyone to know that Teddy Ford had received such an invitation, but had no intention of attending. He did not plan to go out at all that night, having spent the waning days of the year confined to his one-room apartment, lying on the bed and smoking and sipping wine with the radio on, and he’d decided New Year’s Eve would be no different.
But early in the evening his friend Michael Creamier came calling, and would not be turned away. “Are you completely unaware of what you’re missing, old son?” he called through the closed door. “Are you totally out of your mind? Are you barking, Teddy? Please, tell me.”
Teddy did not answer.
“Listen, sport, it’s high time you forgot about her,” Michael said. “Better to have loved than lost, other fish in the sea, chin up, and all that.”
“Leave me alone,” said Teddy.
“Come on, Teddy, there’ll be plenty of replacements at Jerry’s! This I promise you, my boy. This I swear.”
“I don’t want to go.”
“Oh, he doesn’t want to go. Listen, son, do you like girls? Do you?”
“Well, really, one’s as good as another, I say. Now toss your glad rags on and foot it on out here. I will be very disappointed in you, young man, if I’m forced to come in and fetch you. Very disappointed indeed. Besides, you have to admit—it’s your own fault you lost her, old boy. You said so yourself.”
When Michael proved relentless, Teddy finally surrendered, and both of them, dressed to the nines, ventured out into the winter night to catch a cab to Jerry’s labyrinthine townhouse atop the hill. All his old school chums would be there, Michael assured him, and that would cheer him up, wouldn’t it? But the idea simply depressed Teddy more. He did not think he could stand their jocular, wheedling greetings and their overweening bravado. But lots of people came to Jerry’s parties. Perhaps someone would offer an interesting diversion.
Things did not bode well when the valet ushered them inside. They were nearly bowled over by the bellowed hellos and inundation of violent handshakes. There was a vigorous round of how-d’ye-do’s, and those that needed to be called bastards were gleefully called bastards. Teddy tried his best to smile and shook all the necessary hands, hating himself all the while for his capitulation. Then he was swooped into the parlor room to see Jerry’s new level of decadence.
As it turned out, the New Year’s Eve party was a masquerade. Ornate tin masks with the visages of animals were piled on a table by the door, and a big tin lamb mask was stuffed onto Teddy’s head and he was shoved into the party. There he saw the masks were just the beginning: Not only had Jerry booked a top-notch jazz band, but he’d also hired ballerinas from the local company to twirl through the crowd like living decorations. Bars lined the party floor on either side, and guests adorned with fantastic faces were already shambling across the room cawing laughter, with highballs dribbling from their gloved hands.
“Can’t believe they’re ossified already!” cried Michael happily, eyes glinting through his bear mask as he bounded over to the bar to catch up. Teddy reluctantly followed.
It was, as expected, a satisfactorily merry occasion: Debates were held in the corners as to whether or not Jerry had outdone last year, with an even split on the issue. But Teddy did not join in; he did not accept any proffered cigars, or get caught up in conversation, and he barely noticed when his friends tried to usher a ballerina his way.
“What’s with Teds?” he heard someone ask.
“Bastard’s nursing a broken heart,” someone answered. “Been dippy for over a month. Some schoolteacher or other. You know him. Always the romantic, Teddy.” And they laughed.
Something cold and terrible calcified in Teddy’s heart. He ordered a pony of scotch, and another, and then another, and sometime around eleven, when everyone was very tight indeed, Teddy found himself propped up against the bar listening to a discussion about cocktails.
“Menken was correct,” declared Otto Eyison through his immense swan mask. “A martini is a sonnet. A perfect sonnet. It’s their best export.”
“Gin or vodka?” asked someone.
This elicited so many awful glares that the speaker physically recoiled. “What?” he asked defensively.
“A martini is always made with gin,” said Patricia Aberforth. “Never vodka. Vodka is a recent perversion.”
“As is the shaker,” said Otto.
“Oh, but I like the shaker,” said Patricia. “It gives it that nice chill.”
“It’s a French innovation,” said Otto with disgust. “Crushes the gin. Smashes the ice. A stirred pitcher is the proper form. Can’t be beat, like I said.”
They next evaluated the strengths of the negroni, a rather new and delicious cocktail, though it did have the misfortune of being Italian. Teddy stared at his own glass, as he was not entirely sure what was in it, though he’d been drinking it for the past half-hour. He grew bored and went outside to the townhouse’s courtyard, where he wandered through the starlit statues. When he came to the steps down to the garden, he sat down and gave a great sigh. After a moment he began to feel tired, and rested his head against the handrail.
“Cold night, isn’t it?” said a voice.
Teddy sat up and turned. He saw that one of the courtyard statues was not a statue at all; it was a tall, thin man wearing a stork-like bird mask. He stood very still with a flute of champagne in one hand. Even at this distance Teddy could see his small, sad eyes shining in his mask.
Teddy agreed that it was a very cold night.
“I almost hesitate to ask what could have driven you out into this chill weather,” said the man, walking over.
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Teddy. “The conversation, I suppose. They’re debating cocktail knowledge like it’s a philosophy course, or something.”
“Ah, but it can be, in a way,” said the man. “I, for instance, have always personally felt that a cocktail should most resemble a life.”
“A what?” said Teddy.
“Well, a lot of work goes into a good cocktail,” said the man. “Many ingredients, much preparation. It can take hours or even years of labor to get the ingredients ready and mix them properly. And then, once it’s all done, why, it all seems to go by in a heartbeat, doesn’t it?”
“Does it?” said Teddy, but thought to himself: Did he say years?
“Yes,” he said. “Just a few sips. A fleeting taste. A pleasant suffusion of warmth, beginning in the belly. And then it’s all over. Much like a life. That is what a real cocktail should be. It should mirror the greater experience, shouldn’t it?”
Teddy smiled, confused. “I think I’d like to try a cocktail like that.”
“Would you?” said the man. He thought for a bit, then tossed out his remaining champagne. “Well, everyone gets one eventually. And it seems your time has come. Here, my dear soul, let’s go back inside. I shall make you one.”
“Oh, no, you don’t have to do that.”
“But I insist,” said the man. “Come. Let me educate you a little.”
Teddy wobbled to his feet and followed the man to the bar, where his new friend reached over and plucked up a large Boston shaker. “You don’t mind, do you?” the man asked the barman.
The barman, startled, shook his head.
“Good.” The man skillfully spun the shaker around in one hand. “Now. What sort of drink do we want?”
“Well, I’ve always been partial to scotch,” said Teddy.
“Scotch? For your year’s last moments? Oh, no. No, no. That’s much too coarse. But what is it we need? What drink is fitting for such an end?” He turned to the window. Outside the winter night seemed even more barren and lonely than before. Snow was beginning to fall, and the gray light of the moon made the statues in the courtyard look icy and lonesome.
He turned back to look at Teddy. “I think what we need,” he said, “is a cocktail of heartache.”
“Of what?” said Teddy.
“Heartache,” he said again. “And unless I’m mistaken, you just might have that in spades. Am I wrong?”
Teddy opened his mouth, taken aback, but for some reason the man’s small, sad eyes calmed him. He shut his mouth and lowered his head a little. “No,” he said quietly.
“I see,” said the man. “It is evident that you’re quite tormented. Someone is lost from your life, perhaps never to return.”
Teddy sighed. And as he sighed the man swooped forward with the shaker and seemed to snatch something out of the air.
“Ah, good. This will serve quite nicely.” He held up the shaker. There at the bottom were several ounces of a very thin, powder-blue, illusory fluid, and for reasons Teddy did not understand the mere sight of it put pangs in his heart. It was the color that filled his head when he was alone on the streets at night, or when he pored over old letters in the early hours of the morning, or clapped a handkerchief to his nose to catch a lingering scent. It was the color of that most painful despair, the most wretched of depressions. He looked away.
“How did you get that?” he asked.
“Oh, most things are very easily gotten,” said the man. “Provided you are looking for them the right way. This is very high quality, you know. I’ve not seen such good heartache in years. Were it a bit purplish we’d know we had something more hysteric and self-indulgent, but this . . . This is pure, and cold.”
Teddy admitted that the color did seem very good.
“Well, now,” said the man. “We shall need to find something to balance out the malty flavor. Then some spice, a sweetener, some bitters, and something to chill it. And then a garnish, of course.” He turned his sad eyes back on Teddy and looked him up and down. “The garnish will be the hardest. It most always is. But it will be such a marvelous cocktail, my dear soul. It will suit this night and you perfectly. I promise it.”
Teddy scratched his head. “I’m sorry, I don’t . . . I don’t think I ever got your name. Did you come with Lawrence? Are you from his firm?”
The man scanned the crowd, looking for something, and absently said, “A firm? No. But I was a judge, once.”
“I thought so,” said Teddy. “You had the look of a legal man about you. I guess parties like this attract all kinds.”
“You’ve no idea,” said the man. “On such cold nights a gathering of warmth and happiness like this calls all kinds of things down out of the dark skies. Now. What is next? Ah! I have it. I think perhaps a fond embrace would do the trick.”
The man took Teddy by the arm and they wove through crowds of cackling people until they came to an elderly couple dancing slowly on the dance floor. They were probably too old for such a party, but they did not seem to care: They simply turned about, hand in hand, staring into one another’s eyes and trying to get ever closer.
The man in the bird mask sighed. “Look at them. How happy they are! Clearly they have spent years in each other’s company, yet the love is still visible in their faces. Have you ever known such happiness, my dear soul? I should hope you have.”
“I did, once,” said Teddy weakly. “For a little while.”
“All whiles are little. No matter how sweet.” He held the shaker out and clapped it on something in the air. The dancing couple blinked a little, but otherwise did not react.
“Look,” said the man in the bird mask. He held up the shaker. The powder-blue fluid within had become a much stronger, brighter blue. “Similar to heartache, but different. A fond embrace has all the longing, but it has what it longs for. It is complete.”
“I see,” said Teddy, though he didn’t.
“That should balance out the maltiness, but now what . . . Oh, yes! The spice. I know just what we need. Shouldn’t some lies work well?”
“Lies?” said Teddy, but again the man grabbed him by the arm and pulled him until they were standing behind Jerry Ulkridge himself, who was talking to three young men Teddy did not know.
“So honestly, Jerry,” said one of them. “How do you do it? How can you keep funding such magnificent parties each year?”
“Funding?” said Jerry. “You wish to talk about that tonight? Are we really going to be so distasteful?”
“We’re just curious,” said another. Then, in a sly tone, “After all, I’ve heard from someone that your father’s estate isn’t quite what it used to be.”
“What!” said Jerry. “Who on earth would say something so despicable? I’ll have you know that my father’s estate is getting along very well, thank you!”
“Yes! As a matter of fact, our income has trebled over the past four years. Investing in the cotton trade, you see. I’d do the same if I were you boys. It’s got nowhere to go but up.” He smiled, though he still appeared agitated.
The man in the bird mask reached over Jerry’s shoulder and wafted something towards them. Then he opened the shaker again and lifted it up as though scooping it out of the air. The blue tinge at the bottom of the shaker grew a bit red, though some powder-blue whorls still remained.
“Of course, his father’s estate is not doing nearly so well,” said the man in the bird mask, withdrawing. “In truth, Mr. Ulkridge has driven it into debt, and each of these parties only makes it worse. So, he lies. These lies are more than a little angry, you can tell by the red color and the speed of the whorls. But we all lie, don’t we? Haven’t you told your fair amount of lies, sir?”
Teddy did not wish to answer the question. “How do you know that about him?”
“I told you,” said the man. “I am a judge.”
“Oh. Were you a judge in one of Jerry’s cases?”
The man sighed. “I do not judge in many cases these days, though I sometimes intervene on a whim. Now. A sweetener. What could we use . . .” He turned to look at the wall, and his eyes trailed up as if staring through the ceiling. “Well, well! Aren’t we lucky? Come.”
Teddy followed the man upstairs. As they walked down the hall Teddy saw they weren’t the only deserters: Many couples had left the party to find solace in the shadows of the second floor. They conversed quietly, sharing caresses or meaningful, silent stares, and some had abandoned all pretension and were deep in passion. But the man in the bird mask passed by all these and came to a small bedroom door, open a crack. He peeked through and said, “Yes. Here we are.” He pushed it open and entered, gesturing for Teddy to follow.
It took some time for Teddy’s eyes to adjust. He saw people in the room, but they had not noticed his entry. He made out the considerable bulk of Michael Creamier on the bed, and below him a flash of a white calf and a slippered foot, and the pale ring of a petticoat. Michael’s hand slowly crept under the petticoat, and the leg tensed as his hand advanced.
“Michael,” said a girl’s voice. “Please, I don’t . . . I don’t want to.”
“But you do, really,” he said huskily. “Don’t you?”
“But I’ve never . . . Oh, I don’t know about this.”
“Don’t you love me?” The soft tap-tap of drunken kisses in the dark.
“Yes, but . . .”
“Then be still.” Michael’s backside shifted, and there was the tinkle of a belt buckle and a shifting of clothes. “Let’s get these . . . off . . .”
“Michael, no,” whispered the girl. “Michael, please . . .”
But Michael’s back flexed, and a soft cry came from beneath him. “There,” he said, his voice trembling. “There.”
Teddy thought he saw the man in the bird mask move in the dark, and he heard the shaker open and close.
“What was that?” said the girl.
“Be still,” said Michael. “Please, be still.”
The man in the bird mask crooked a finger, and they softly walked out and shut the door.
“Michael Creamier,” said Teddy with disgust. “That’s a true bastard if ever there was one. The things he’s done . . . I can’t believe I still think him a friend. How drunk must he be that he didn’t even see us?”
The man held up the shaker. The mixture inside had taken on a greenish hue. “I’m sure I can’t say. But what could be sweeter than a virgin’s last gasp? Her last gasp as a virgin, I mean. Have you ever heard one yourself?”
Teddy stared at him. Then, ashamed and miserable, he nodded.
“Yes,” said the man. “This one is laced with regret. Look at how light and frothy it has made our cocktail. How she must have hoped that he would listen, and stop. It must have been so terrible for her, yes?”
Teddy stood still. He was trying not to remember a night in his own past, only a few weeks ago, a night of mistakes and heedless words and too much wine, and the awful morning after when he’d realized what he’d done, and how irreparable everything had become in the wake of those few fragile moments in the dark. “It must have been very terrible,” he said.
“Very,” said the man in the bird mask. “Now come. Bitters are next.”
They went back downstairs and out into the courtyard. It was snowing very hard now. Teddy half-wished to go back in and get a coat, but the man in the bird mask walked on among the moonlit statues, looking from stony face to stony face. “Aren’t you cold?” asked Teddy.
“Hm?” said the man. “Oh, a little. But I always am, here. I come from very hot climes, with lots of sand and deserts. Very dry, except in the flood years. But I don’t mind. Do you?”
Teddy realized he did feel a little warmer. Or did he? He found he did not really feel either hot or cold. “I suppose not.”
“How hard their lives must be, these statues,” said the man. “They are stuck out here in the cold, the dark, watching the merriment within. And they can never enter, never join. Do you not feel the same sometimes?”
“Yes,” he said. “All the time, recently.”
“Yes,” said the man in the bird mask. He ran the shaker under the still lips of the statues. As he did the mixture within turned slightly translucent. “A bitter thing, that desire. It almost curdles.” Swishing the shaker about, he walked to the edge of the courtyard and set it down on the steps. “And now to be chilled by the winter wind. Then all we’ll need is the garnish. Come here and sit by me, my dear soul.”
As Teddy sat he took off his lamb mask and threw it away into the spindly bushes.
“Has this been a good year, sir?” asked the man in the bird mask. “Is this a beginning for you, or an end?”
Teddy thought about it. “An end.”
“But what could be ending for you?”
“It feels like . . . everything,” said Teddy. “You wouldn’t understand.”
“I just might,” said the man. “I have heard quite a few confessions in my day.”
Teddy sat, head bowed. “I don’t know. It’s . . . It’s as if I’ve given something up, and the giving of it hollowed me out. It was my own fault. I know what I did. And I wish I could take it back. But I can’t. It’s all part of love, isn’t it?”
“I cannot say,” said the man.
“It’s feeling complete, it’s feeling whole. There’s nothing like it in the world. And it feels so strong. But it isn’t strong. It breaks so easily. It just takes one mistake, and then . . .”
“Then what?” said the man in the bird mask. Teddy noticed his mask had changed a little. The tin seemed to glimmer in the starlight, and was he imagining things, or were those real feathers at the edges of the face?
“And it’s gone,” said Teddy. “Everything. You won’t ever feel so wonderful again. And all the years after . . . They’ll be muted and gray in the face of what you’ve lost, what you threw away. And you did it. You did this to yourself.”
The man in the bird mask picked up the shaker and examined it contemplatively. “A life is a matter of moments,” he said. “They take so much preparation, these moments. Years of shaping, of simmering. And then they come to a head, and are drunk, and gone. I do wish people would enjoy them more. That is all I ever judge people by. Of all the words I ever fashioned, the most important are still repeated today, long after those who worshipped me have gone.”
“What are they?” asked Teddy.
The man in the bird mask turned to him. And when he spoke his beak opened as if it was his mouth, and Teddy could not discern where his mask stopped and his flesh began: “Eat, drink, and be merry,” said the man. “For tomorrow, we die.”
“What’s wrong with your mask?” asked Teddy.
“My mask?” said the man. “I am not wearing a mask, Teddy Ford.”
Teddy stared at him. He began to feel very cold. “Who are you?”
“A friend, Teddy Ford,” said the man. “And a judge. I intervene so very rarely these days, like I said, but you came stumbling into my lap, didn’t you?”
“I did? What do you mean?”
The man pointed at something beside him. Teddy looked and saw they were not alone on the steps: There was a man seated a few steps down, leaning against the handrail. But his skin was very pale, almost blue, and his eyes were closed as if sleeping. Teddy peered at his face, and realized he recognized him.
“Oh,” he said softly. He touched his own face. “I see. I . . . I didn’t go back inside, did I?”
“No,” said the man. “You did not.” He took two glasses from his pocket and poured the cocktails. He picked them both up and held them beneath the frozen man’s nose. A tiny cloud of condensation puffed from his nostrils, and something crystal-white crept across the glasses’ rims. “I am sorry about the garnish. I told you it was the hardest part. But it must always be the same. The drinker’s last breath, you see. But it is worth it, isn’t it, to experience a handful of moments once more before they are gone?” The man held one glass out to him. “For you, Mr. Ford.”
Teddy took it and stared at the cocktail. Then he drank. And as he drank he tasted things he thought he’d forgotten long ago: the delight of a bright morning spent walking with a warm hand in his; the scent of jasmine wafting over to him across green hills; the way a candle flame dances in a darkened restaurant, making the eyes across from him gleam with hope and excitement; a tight embrace he wished could last for years; and then the bitterness of lies, the awful torn feeling of wanting a thousand things at once, and the frustration brought by the sight of soft white flesh, and pinkened lips, and the terrible, trembling desire to be known and held and loved whatever the cost.
“Your life, Mr. Ford.” The man’s voice seemed very far away now. “I suggest you drink it slowly now, and enjoy it.”
But soon the last drop was gone.
• • •
When it came close to midnight everyone began preparing for the countdown. Otto Eyison looked around. “Where’s Teddy got to?” he said. “He was just here. He can’t miss midnight.”
“Perhaps he went outside,” said Patricia. “He did keep looking out the windows.”
“I thought he came back in with that tall fellow,” said a friend. “Didn’t he?”
“A tall fellow?” asked Patricia. “I didn’t see anyone like that.”
“Bloody fool,” said Otto. “I shall have to fetch him, won’t I.”
Otto opened the French doors and walked out into the courtyard. It was terribly cold outside, and the wind clawed at his flesh. He stuffed himself into his coat and called, “Teddy! Teddy, are you out here?”
There was no answer. He walked to the top of the steps that led down to the garden, and stopped. There was a crumpled shape at the foot of the stairs. In his drunkenness Otto almost thought it was a person, but that was foolish; no sane man would come out to sit in such cold. He thought about investigating, but noticed something bright beside his foot on the top step.
He blinked and looked down. On the ground were two highball glasses. One was empty, but the other had a few sips left. He picked it up and examined the drink within.
It was the most peculiar color, a soft, translucent blue. And though he could not say why he thought such a thing, he felt the color was that of heartache, if it could have a color at all.
He sniffed it. The drink smelled very appealing. He considered tasting it, but shook his head. “Can’t leave such nice glasses out here,” he said, and he tossed the drink out, picked up the other glass, and walked back inside to the party.