It was the night of the annual New Year’s Eve bash, which is always well-attended by all the movers and shakers of our fair town.
As our limousine pulled up under the portico of the historic Old Polk Inn (recently modernized), Alexis reached over to begin straightening my tie. This was generally her way of getting my attention so that she can give me last-minute instructions.
“Now don’t forget,” she said, staring into my eyes earnestly to make sure that I was paying attention to her, which I always am. I don’t know why she seems to have the notion that my mind tends to drift hither and yon when anyone is talking to me. I can focus like a laser beam on any conversation that may be going on around me. I am like a sponge, or perhaps a chamois, absorbing any information that may be floating about in the ether.
A case in point. When I was a wee lad of 9, my great Aunt Winnifred cornered me just before my cousin Benton’s wedding and gave me a great many instructions as to how to comport myself as the ring bearer of the ceremony. She seemed to think that the success of the wedding, and, indeed, the very success of marriage between my cousin Benton and his bride, Mariam, hinged entirely on my ability to carry a pair of rings down the aisle on a satin pillow without being distracted by any shiny objects that may lie between the vestibule and the altar. I assured her that I was more than capable of performing my duties. After all, if my second cousin Julianna, who was only a year older than me and was as flibberty a gibbet who ever put on a flower-girl dress, could be entrusted with scattering rose petals along the same route I would be taking, then there should be no doubt about my ability to bear rings and bear them well.
“Are you even listening to me?” came my beautiful Alexis’ voice from the ether.
“Sorry, Darling,” I said. “I was recalling the time I lost the wedding rings at my cousin Benton’s wedding. What were you saying?”
“I was saying that no matter what you do tonight, just make sure you are at my side at the stroke of midnight so that we can kiss the new year in.”
“Yes, Darling. I have not missed a single midnight kiss at any of the New Year’s Eve parties we’ve been to since we met.”
“There were a couple of near misses, though,” she said.
“Yes, but they were brought about by circumstances beyond my control.”
“But promise me you will be at my side at midnight for our kiss,” she said plaintively, clasping my hand and pressing it to the black satin bosom of her sparkling New Year’s ball gown.
“I promise, my Darling,” I said, kissing her cheek.
“I know you think it is silly that I believe we will have a year of awful luck if we don’t kiss at midnight on New Year’s.”
“Darling, any year in which we are married is guaranteed to be lucky beyond our wildest dreams,” I said, kissing her again. “Still, I give you my word that there is absolutely nothing in this world that will keep me from your side as the clock strikes midnight.”
She gazed up at me with big green eyes that were glassy with emotion and gratitude. “Thank you, Darling,” she said. “That means so much to me.”
I was about to tell her that if she continued to clasp my hand to the sequined bosom of her ball gown, that we may not even be in the ballroom of the Polk Inn at midnight. We might instead be kissing in the back of a limousine at midnight. However, at that very moment the door of the limousine opened and the white gloved hand of James (my chauffeur) appeared in order to help my gorgeous Alexis from the car. My New Year’s evening was already off to a somewhat disappointing start.
Since we were arriving somewhat late, things inside the ballroom of the old Polk Inn were in full swing as we entered. A small orchestra was playing seasonal music. Folks were dressed to the nines and were hobbing and nobbing with celebratory glee. The grand ballroom was still decorated with elaborate Christmas decorations and the large Christmas tree still stood over in one corner. Spirits were flowing freely from several satellite open bars and glassware clinked everywhere about us in a festive chorus. This was certainly going to be a night to remember!
We had hardly had time to check our coats, wraps, stoles, gloves, and various other fortifications against the sub-freezing weather outside and grab ourselves a bracing drink at the open bar before we were accosted by our next-door neighbors, Roland and Ophelia Blighton-Smythe.
“Hiya, Champ!” said Roland cheerily, slapping me on the back as if I’d just thrown a perfect rock down the ice curling sheet and into “the house” for the winning curl. He also caused me to nearly choke on the olive that I had just popped into my mouth from my warming drink.
“Hiya, Rol!” I said hoarsely, though equally enthusiastically, after I’d finished a few preparatory coughs and gotten the olive properly stowed away internally. I started to pound him on the back as well, but when Roland is involved, these things have a way of escalating in something of a gladiator match of back-slapping, glad-handing, fake boxing jabbing, and finger-gun clicking. So, I decided against slapping him on the back. Instead, I just asked, “How are things?”
“Couldn’t be better,” he said, flashing his award winning, highly polished teeth. “Isn’t that right, ‘Phee?”
“That’s right, Rol,” she chirped happily. “Couldn’t possibly be any better. Even though we were very nearly late because you just had to wrap up that business deal on the phone with that company in Gdańsk.”
“But now it’s done,” he said, mistaking Ophelia’s comment for a compliment. “And we will start off the new year with a reason to celebrate.”
“That is a lovely dress you’re wearing, Ophelia,” said Alexis, hoping to avoid any long, drawn-out explanations by Roland of his Byzantine business dealings.
“Thank you!” gushed Ophelia. “And I love yours as well. Black really makes your green eyes stand out.”
“The secret of the whole shebang,” continue Roland, oblivious to any talk of style, “Is the current exchange rate between the dollar and the złoty.”
“Honestly, Rol,” said Ophelia, smiling charmingly at her husband, “The Callington’s care nothing about złoty.” She kissed him on the cheek to emphasize the spirit in which her remark was given.
“I might care a tiny bit,” I said hopefully. “If only I knew what a złoty is. Is it a pastry of some sort? Perhaps something along the lines of a Kołacz or Pączki?”
Roland was about to explain the mysteries of Polish pastries to our assemblage, but my beautiful Alexis suddenly let out a delighted squeal that nearly caused me to spill what was left of my drink. I honestly did not realize she was so enthralled with Polish pastries. Or pastries in general.
“Miranda!” she gushed holding out her arms towards someone.
I suddenly realized that we were about to be joined by the Hawthorne-Pinckneys, our neighbors further down Meandering Pheasant Lane. Alexis is the number one fan of the Hawthorne-Pinckneys and I would not be surprised if she did not have a scrapbook of their doings, much like people have scrapbooks of England’s royal family. The Hawthorne-Pinckneys were the closest thing to royalty the American entrepreneurial spirit had ever been able to produce. Though somewhat elderly, their vast wealth made them still look as if they were in their prime.
“Alexis!” countered Miranda Hawthorne-Pinckney as they embraced briefly. There followed a general round of light, socially acceptable hugging between the three ladies, a few air kisses between the ladies and the men, and slight head nods between the men.
“Alistair,” said the ever-terse and congenitally humorless Monty Hawthorne-Pinckney as his form of a greeting. He raised his gray, bushy eyebrows briefly in lieu of a handshake, since he did not care for physical contact in any form. “Roland,” he said, repeating his eyebrow salute.
“Hiya, Monty,” said Roland. I noticed that he did not pound Monty on the back and call him “Ace” or “Sport”. Even a Blighton-Smythe knows better than to be too familiar with a Hawthorne-Pinckney. After all, one would not goose a reigning monarch and make a whooping noise. Instead, Roland just flashed his large collection of teeth and said, “How’s tricks?”
“Tricks?” said Monty, squinting a bit at Roland.
“You know. Things. Business.”
“Ah,” said Monty as if he now understood. “Going well. Gangbusters. Hotcakes. And so forth and so on.”
“And whatnot,” added Miranda helpfully.
“Roland here,” I said, trying to be helpful, “Was just regaling us with his business dealings with Polish pastries.”
“Pastries?” said Monty, again squinting at Roland as if an insurance salesman was attempting to sell him on a whole life policy.
“No,” said Roland, shaking his head. “Not pastries. Triticale.”
“Steady on,” I admonished him. “There are ladies present.”
Monty stopped squinting at Roland long enough to tilt his head at me approvingly.
“Triticale,” said Roland, appearing to grit his numerous teeth, “Is a wheat hybrid.”
“Ah,” I said as the scales fell from my eyes. “Well, that’s all right then. Carry on. I shall just nip away and freshen up my drink.”
I did not wish to appear rude, but my tolerance for dissertations on wheat varieties was on the low-ish side of low.
But as I was preparing to exit stage left, and as the others in our little group continued to discuss hybrid wheat futures and Polish pastries, Alexis touched my arm to momentarily arrest my attempted escape.
“Don’t forget,” she whispered in my ear. “Please be by my side by midnight.”
“Not to worry,” I whispered back. “I would swim the river Styx without swim goggles to be by your side at the stroke of midnight.”
She smiled at me and pulled me down a little lower so she could kiss my cheek.
“Okay,” she said. “I will hold you to it. That is only an hour from now.”
I glanced at my handmade Swiss Chèvre Blanche wristwatch. And it was no mere wristwatch; it was their highly sought after Montre Impénétrable du Poignet model.
“I shan’t be late, my Darling,” I said. “Surely one of these many dials actually tells the time. Possibly this one. It looks very clock-like.”
“That is barometric pressure,” giggled Alexis. “It’s this one.” She pointed to one of the little dials.
“Are you sure? There are no numbers on that one.”
“It’s the only one with two hands. When both hands are pointing upwards, it’s midnight,” she said. “And besides, look over there.”
She pointed at the far end of the ballroom and, following her delicate digit, I espied a gargantuan clock that had no doubt been obtained at an estate sale held at the top of a beanstalk somewhere.
“Ah!” I said. “Perfect. I shall glance at it periodically.”
I walked away, shaking my wrist and holding my Chèvre Blanche top of the line Montre Impénétrable du Poignet wristwatch up to my ear. Surely this thing was good for something besides building up my wrist muscles.
A minute later, I was slipping a bit of legal tender into the tip jar of the bartender and taking possession of an impertinent little cognac, when a canon-like voice at my left elbow caused me to spill a good portion of it all over my wool suit.
“Callington!” thundered the voice of one Major Dreadnaught.
As the last of the gentle cognac rain drifted from the heavens and seeped into the tight weave of my wool suitcoat, and the ringing in my ears subsided a bit, I turned to the bartender and said, “I will have another one of these, please.”
“Ah, Major,” I said, wiping my wet hand on my slacks before extending it to him to shake hands. “So good to see you.”
Fortunately, the ringing in my ears drowned out the crackling sound that my knuckles, sinews, cartilage, and bones emitted as they were crushed within his vice-like grip. I would now have to carry my cognac in my left hand. My right hand would be spending the rest of the evening playing the part of a withered blob of abstract art at the end of my wrist.
“Jolly good,” he boomed. I could tell by his hazy expression that he had apparently discovered a barrel of grog down in the hold somewhere. “You of course know Mrs. Major Dreadnaught.” He indicated his better half with his half tankard of grog.
“Indeed, I do,” I said, taking her hand in my left hand and bending to kiss it. “How are you Mrs. Dreadnaught?”
“Fine, thank you,” she twittered. “Happy New Year.”
“Happy New Year to you and the Major,” I said.
“To the new year!” boomed the Major, raising his tankard in a toast as several people around us shied like skittish horses and bolted away from us towards the center of the ballroom. “What?”
“What?” I asked.
“What what,” explained the Major. He then stared off into the distance as he prepared to reminisce a bit. “Once celebrated New Years on a sinking frigate in the North Sea.”
“That sounds rather dicey,” I said. “Not very festive.”
“Took a torpedo portside. Once the fire was out, captain instructed Cookie … break out the brandy! Serve it to the men. Not the cheap stuff. Captain’s reserve.”
“Most commendable,” I said, raising my cognac in a toast. “I’m sure it helped keep up their spirits until help arrived.”
“Flekkefjord!” boomed the Major suddenly, causing me to spill most of my second cognac of the evening.
“Beg your pardon?” I asked, glancing quickly at Mrs. Major Dreadnaught to make sure she was not shocked or offended at the Major’s salty language. However, she seemed perfectly fine. She had been married to him long enough to make allowances for his military language.
“Frigate docked in Flekkefjord, Norway. Errant torpedo dropped during loading. Frigate only sank a foot. Complete waste of brandy. All hands lost.”
“They drowned in the harbor?” I asked, shocked.
“Shore leave,” he grunted. “Damned soft rules. Completely different when I was an officer cadet.”
“Well, if you’ll excuse me, Major … Mrs. Dreadnaught … I see an old friend of mine I would like to go wish Happy New Year to before midnight rolls around.”
We exchanged another round of “Happy New Year’s” to each other before I was able to make my escape with a third Cognac.
I cantered up the wide, curved staircase leading up to the gallery that overlooked the ballroom, for I had seen my best friend up there. Herb Blakely is the eponymous owner and CEO of Blakely’s Better Bitters, our region’s largest distiller of fine beverages. We had become best of friends while seeking sanctuary at a lobby bar outside of a two-hour long Vivaldi concert.
I found him leaning casually on the ornate railing that looked down onto the New Year’s revelers down below in the ballroom. Beside him was his raven-haired wife, Tricia, who was arch nemesis to my darling Alexis. She was serving as counterpoint to Herb’s casual, relaxed personage. She stood upright and stiff, holding a long-stemmed wine glass in her hand. Whereas Herb was looking down at the revelers like a curious boy might look down upon a busy anthill, Tricia was staring down at the proceedings keenly and coolly, like a chess master contemplating her next move, or like Cardinal Richelieu contemplating how he was going to deal with those troublesome Musketeers.
“Hallo, Herb, you old stick in the mud,” I greeted, reaching out to shake his hand.
“Alice!” he exclaimed, his face brightening as he saw who was calling his name. Somewhere in the course of our friendship, he thought it would be great fun to call me Alice, rather than Alistair. I stopped protesting it, for the more I protested, the more he called me it. He grasped my hand and shook it vigorously. “What are you doing here?”
“Oh, you know. Same as you, I expect. Seeing in the new year.”
“Why is your hand wet?” he asked, breaking our handshake to wipe his hands on a handkerchief.
“I have taken several direct hits from Major Dreadnaught’s canon-like voice,” I said. “And was holding cognac at the time.”
“Ah,” he grunted in understanding.
“And how are you, Tricia?” I asked. “You’re looking lovely tonight, as always.”
“Thank you,” she said, smiling. “You look quite dapper yourself.”
“I was much more dapper before being doused a few times with some less than stellar cognac.”
“And where is your lovely wife?” she asked, looking around me as if she expected Alexis to step out from behind me whence she’d been hiding.
“She is down hobnobbing with the Hawthorne-Pinckney’s and the Blighton-Smythe’s,” I said.
“Hmm,” she said, nodding her head as if all the mysteries in the world had suddenly been explained to her. “Captain Ahab on the hunt for the great white Hawthorne.”
“Ah,” I said, winking knowingly at her. “I can see I have Pequod your interest.”
She stared blankly at me for a moment before saying, “What?”
“Fish talk, my dear,” said the forever patient Herb.
She rolled her eyes almost imperceptibly and returned her gaze to the activity below. “You men and your fishing. I’m afraid I shall never see the fascination it holds for you.”
“Speaking of fish,” I said hungrily. “I am about to set sail towards the buffet and see if they have any caviar.”
“You’d better hustle then,” said Herb. “It is nearly midnight.”
I glanced with horror at the giant clock at the far end of the ballroom just as the first bong of midnight resounded through the cavernous room. I set my cognac glass down on the railing and looked over it at the crowd below, scanning it for my superstitious sunflower. I immediately saw her brilliant green eyes gazing up at me from below. They were as wide and as frightened as a doe’s eyes (though green).
My heart wrenched within my chest, for there was no way I could careen down the staircase, fight my way through the crowded throng that were busily counting down the seconds to midnight, and be by her side at the stroke of midnight.
I glanced around me in a panic.
Desperate times call for desperate measures and my eyes fell upon one of many ropes of faux evergreen garland that crisscrossed the expansive ballroom in tastefully festive loops and whorls. A lesser man would have dismissed these fragile-looking ropes of evergreen as nothing more than garnish on a plate of steaming disaster that was being served at the moment. However, though I, too, might be a lesser man, I was a man who desperately needed to be by the side of the light of his life.
To think was to do, and I grabbed the end of one of the strings of garland, gave it a hearty wrench to free it from its supporting column to which it was moored .
“What on earth are you doing?” asked the astonished Tricia as I slung my leg over the railing.
I had no time to explain, but Herb offered up an explanation of sorts as I slung the second leg over the railing and sat upon it, taking up the slack in the garland.
“It’s Alistair,” he said laconically, sipping his drink. “He’s barmy.”
I heard the crowd shouting, “… four …. three …!”
I shoved off with a murmured “Tally ho!” for luck and went sailing in a less than graceful inverted arc towards my beloved.
They obviously don’t make garland like they used to in the days of our forebears, when they had to go out into the woods, trudging through six-foot snow drifts, to hew their own garland with axes. Therefore, I’m sure there is a way to describe the arc I took using thetas and pi and radii and degrees and whatnot, but the math would have gotten quite complicated at the point where the garland broke near its remaining mooring point in the center of the ceiling, causing me to plummet the remaining six feet and to land in a heap at the feet of my astonished amaryllis.
“Two … !” shouted the crowd in unison. And followed it up with the predictable “ONE!”
I leapt to my feet (somewhat stiffly) and took my beautiful wife in my arms and, just as the crowd shouted “ZERO!” I bent her over backwards in an amazing dip that the people who were in attendance that year still talk about to this day.
By the time the crowd were shouting “Happy New Year!” and setting off poppers and whirling noisemakers, my lips were pressed to Alexis’ lips and I was kissing her as she’d never been kissed before, even when we were newlyweds. Confetti rained down on us like rose petals from the heavens.
After a minute-long kiss, I straightened her back up and gazed into her somewhat flushed, flustered, and smiling face. I was aware of our friends staring at us agog, though they had apparently been struck mute by my sudden appearance.
“See?” I said casually, brushing a few flakes of confetti from her gorgeous red hair. “I said I’d be here.”
She fanned herself with her hand, attempting to quell the bright rose flush of her cheeks. “Whew!” she said. “That was dramatic. Even for you!”
“Well,” I shrugged modestly. “We would not want a year of bad luck, would we?”
“No,” she said, smiling. “We wouldn’t. And now I know we will have a wonderful year!”
“We certainly will!” I said enthusiastically. “Especially once this ankle heals up. I don’t suppose you could help me hobble over to that chair over there, could you?”
“Nothing would make me happier,” she said, taking my arm and sliding it around her shoulder. “As long as you don’t mind an adoring redhead sitting in your lap and showering you with kisses when we get there.”
“Not at all,” I winced as we began making our way towards the chair. “As long as you sit on the leg with the good ankle on it.”
Copyright ©2018 by Biff Sock Pow
All characters contained herein are also Copyright ©2018 by Biff Sock Pow