Party at the End of the World

Party at the End of the World

Jimmy’s house always looks hungover. It’s a sagging slate-colored ranch with a roof full of dead branches that flap like dirty hair when the wind kicks up. Twinkle lights dangle between two spindly bougainvillea that bracket the front walk, strands draped low enough to brush the top of people’s skulls unless they limbo beneath. Half the bulbs don’t work, but the rest blink red-red-red over plastic lawn chairs and the clear glass ashtray full of rainwater and disintegrating cigarette butts left on the windowsill.

A sign on the door reads Harvest Greetings in swooping, delicate cursive beside a glittery horn of plenty. Thanksgiving’s been over for at least two months. I wave at Jimmy from the front seat of my car. Then I put lipstick on in the rearview mirror before winking at my reflection. This is the best I’ll look all night, I think. Just sitting in the car alone before anyone ever sees me.

I cap the tube as Jimmy pulls a long roll of royal blue carpet from the bed of his truck.

“Help me, goddamn it,” he says. “I’m gonna wreck my back again.” His black and yellow baseball cap is pushed back, revealing a large portion of sweaty, greasy forehead. It’s so hot out the pit stains under his arms have pit stains. Jimmy’s got a friendly face, a baby face. Big cheeks and dimpled chin. Kinda face that will look like a toddler’s when he’s fifty.

“The hell is this,” I ask. “New rug and you can’t even put sheets on your mattress?”

“Thought you were bringing Roni,” he says, and I tell him to fuck off.

I grab the end from him and he climbs into the back. The truck dips under his weight, curtsying to meet the oil-stained driveway. Then we waddle with it up the front walk. My platforms dig into the dirt on either side of the cracked concrete.

“I’m not helping you hide a body,” I say, because I’m mad I’m wearing party clothes to move furniture and pissed he brought up my ex-girlfriend.

“Just wait,” he says, laughing. “Just you fucking wait.”

Inside, more twinkle lights connect to a broken ceiling fan, strands pulled to every cobwebby corner of the room. The coffee table is gone and the couches and ratty chairs have been pushed back against the walls, leaving behind rectangles of darker hued carpet from where the sun couldn’t bleach it. I drop my end of the rug and flex my cramped fingers.

“Careful,” Jimmy yelps. He sets down his side delicately and then pats it like a dog.

Someone’s taken out the garbage that usually sits leaking. The house smells less like rotten food and more like mildew.

“You’re really going all out, huh?”

“Last hurrah,” he says, crouching on the floor to peek into the end of the carpet roll. “Gotta make it good.”

One final party before he moves in with his girlfriend, Trina, who he’s dated since high school. Jimmy and I are seven years out of that hellhole and still do the same thing every other week: binge drink with people we don’t really like. Jimmy’s roommates are guys who exclusively wear college football t-shirts with stained cargo shorts and have the kind of blank white faces that smear into each other. Kyle and Marc and Bobby. I call them all “KMB” because most days I can’t tell them apart.

“I’m gonna miss this.” Jimmy drinks a sip from a mostly empty bottle of blue Gatorade scrounged from under the recliner. “Surprises and shit.”

“Party at Trina’s,” I say, just to be mean. Trina lives in a gated apartment complex where you can’t even own a pet over 25 pounds. Her bathroom has fancy, embroidered towels that just swish the water around your hands.

Jimmy untapes a corner of the carpet, but stops before unrolling.

“Could you please get the plastic pool from my bedroom,” he asks and I do what he wants. It’s hard to stay mad at Jimmy because he’s the kind of guy who always says please.

I stop in the guest bath on my way down the hall. My hair is frizzy from the humidity so I root around the vanity searching for a hairbrush. I find a black plastic comb that belongs to one of KMB and smooth the fuzz with mixed results. I’ve got the kind of face that’s not pretty, but women have told me it’s “interesting” in a tone that tells me they’d like to kiss it. A lot of horsey teeth in a wide red mouth, big eyes crowded together over a thin nose that lists a little to one side, like I ran into a wall. The bathroom is as clean as I’ve ever seen it, meaning that someone’s stuck one of those blue tablets in the toilet tank so the black gunk that lines the sides of the bowl can have an aqua bath. Fifty percent fewer beard shavings dot the sink.

“Vanessa, the pool!”

“Keep your pants on.” My lipstick is feathering into the corners of my mouth, too pink. I dot it with toilet paper and hope I meet someone to take my mind off Roni. We’ve broken up three times in the last four months and this time feels like it’s gonna stick.

Roni tells me she’s not bored, but she doesn’t want to eat pizza every night anymore. She wants to talk about moving somewhere else, buying an RV, visiting her parents in Wyoming. She has an idea that we should both cut our hair and shave opposite sides of our heads, like lesbian bookends. It’s not that the pizza is boring, she says, but what she means is it absolutely bores her to tears.

The kiddie pool’s a pink plastic thing I’m able to roll back down the hall like a hoop. “Where’s the ice,” I ask, because I assume he’s gonna toss a keg inside it, but instead he wheels it into a corner.  There are inflatable palm trees and a cardboard image of a busty hula girl in a fringed green skirt.

Jimmy unrolls the carpet. There’s not a dead body inside, but a live one, wriggling. An adolescent alligator, nearly three feet long.

“You moron.” I stare at its long, scaly body. It flexes its tail and tries to hiss through a mouth bound with black electrical tape. “What’s a gator got to do with a luau?”

He picks it up from beneath the torso and it spasms strongly. Then he sets it inside the kiddie pool where it slithers along the corrugated bottom before huddling up along the side. He bustles to the kitchen and returns with two plastic milk jugs full of water. He dumps them both over the alligator, who sits immobile beneath the spray.

“Party, right?” Jimmy says, and I can see that he’s proud.

“Hope it bites your ass.” I kneel on the carpet to get a better look. The alligator doesn’t appear to enjoy its new home, but at least it stopped hissing. It’s got beautiful yellowy-green eyes, like a cat. “So what, you gonna release him in the pool out back?”

“Hell no, I want him to live, don’t I?” The house boasts a large, kidney shaped pool infested with amoebas and larvae and rotten garbage. Jimmy’s never cleaned it and as far as I know; no one’s ever even gotten in. Seven years collecting gunk and animal carcasses has left the water sulfurous and eggy. The backyard breeds mightmarish hordes of mosquitoes over the summer; black clouds of them swarm up from the weeds.

Jimmy empties the last of the water on the alligator’s head and returns with another gallon to dump on it and two beers for us. We drink them silently. “Are there any other surprises,” I finally ask, and Jimmy smiles so I can see the wide gap in his two front teeth.

A gazebo’s been erected in the weedy side yard. A big box of fireworks sits on the deck. Tiki torches sputtering smoky citronella surround plastic beach chairs. One of KMB sits cross-legged next to a pile of firewood and a scraped out patch of dirt. He’s teepeeing the sticks inside the hole and they keep falling over.

“Fuck,” he mutters. He’s got a roachy goatee he keeps scratching at like it’s got bugs in it. “Fuck. Fuck.”

“Marc, you gotta put some shit in the middle or it won’t stay upright,” Jimmy says, already moving to help. I don’t care. My skin feels slick and I’m imagining what Roni would say about all of this.

Your friends are idiots, maybe. Or This is a waste of time, Vanessa.

No one in their right mind would want to sit next to a fire, even if they’re drunk. A bunch of props have been chucked on the patio so people can take stupid pictures for their Instagram. Old Halloween remnants, castoff costumes people forgot from previous parties. Tom and Jerry masks, a foam fireman hat, and a yellow boa that could’ve been plucked from a molting Big Bird. Jimmy taps the keg and lets it foam out before pouring one for him and one for me. Now we’re each holding two beers and I work to drink my bottle fast. This will be my theme for the rest of the night, I think. Try to keep up with Jimmy.

“Fuckin’ sticks,” KMB grumbles, and Jimmy cuffs the back of his head.

The house is at the end of a long cul-de-sac and the neighbors on either side move out so frequently that a party is never a big deal. Jimmy calls it The End of the World and he’s right, it’s got an apocalypse feel to it. We go around the side of the house and I chuck my empty into an overflowing recycling bin. It bounces out and rolls down into the grass to stop beside all the others that have fallen loose in the same pattern. Out front the grass is patchy and dead, the kind of dry crunch that won’t freshen up again until it starts raining regularly again in February or March. We pull cases of beer and big bags of Costco chips and tubs of salsa from the trunk of my car. It’s the same one I’ve had since high school and it’s got stains on the seats from hot wings and ketchup and Big Gulps. These are all meals I routinely eat; newer fast food stains layered over all the older ones, making my past life indistinguishable from the present.

Jimmy likes to throw parties, but his girlfriend Trina is kinda over it. They’ve got the kind of relationship where they go out to movies and fight in the parking lot, followed by getting drunk at the bar and fighting more, then falling asleep and forgetting about it the next day. Trina works at Walgreens in the Beauty Department and she’s got short, wispy blonde hair that she sometimes stripes with semi-permanent dye. The red makes her look like her head’s bleeding. We’re the kind of friends who aren’t, not really, but we’re willing to fake it because we both like Jimmy so much.

“I got a surprise,” Jimmy says. We dump the chips and salsa on the counter and go out for more snacks from my trunk. Frozen ice pops, candy canes and bottles of peppermint schnaaps, hot chocolate mix, red and green Oreos.

“I know. The alligator.”

“A suckling pig,” he announces. There it sits in front of the garage, wrapped up in some blue tarp. “Gonna barbeque the fucker.”

“How do you roast a whole pig,” I ask, but then I remember the firepit. “We’re all gonna get a bacterial infection.”

We cart the pig inside the same way we did the alligator. It’s a lot weirder to carry, harder to hold onto. I can feel its hooves through the plastic. “They use pigs to replicate dead bodies in forensic trials,” I say as we drop it on the kitchen floor. “It’s got the closest flesh to human so investigators can see what happens in different kinds of environments and apply it to real investigations.”

“No shit,” Jimmy says. “I bought barbeque sauce.”

KMB comes in to drag the pig out back. I don’t think they know what they’re doing, I tell Jimmy, but he’s yanked off his dirty shirt and is washing himself at the kitchen sink, slicking lemony dish soap under his arms and in his hair. Water slops onto the floor and gets everything sudsy. I leave him to his bath and go check on the alligator. It hasn’t moved much, just sitting in the pink plastic tub. Somebody turns the music on and the whole house rattles with bass. It’ll be like that the rest of the night, a kind of sonic altering of everyone’s hearing so that by the time we leave everything will sound like it’s under five feet of water.

Trina walks in the front door and waves at me with a half hand. I don’t bother waving back, she’s already gone into the kitchen. She’s got two frozen pizzas under one arm and a paper bag from McDonalds in the other. She drops the pizza on the counter and kisses Jimmy on the back of his damp neck.

“What the shit is that,” she says, gesturing at the pink tub. I pulls my heels off and toss them in the corner of the room, massaging my feet in the places where the straps dug into the arch of my ankle.

“Who fucking knows,” I reply, because I don’t feel like relaying information anyone can see with their own two eyes. She’s stuffing french fries in her mouth and getting red lipstick all over her fingers so it looks like she’s bit them bloody. She squats down beside me on the floor in her lime green halter dress and digs out a cardboard package of chicken tenders from her Mcdonalds bag.

We take turns throwing bits of chicken into the water for the gator. There’s honey mustard dipping sauce and she accidentally drips some down the front of her top. “Aw shit,” she says, and she’s scraping it up with her finger and then dragging a napkin across her boob so her top rides down and I can see the edge of her black bra and almost a little nipple. I stare at it because I can tell she wants me too; she does that with me all the time, the kind of straight girl who wants attention but never anything more than that. She gets up to wash it off in the sink and I finish my beer, madder than ever, and ready for another drink.

Jimmy’s outside in a button up cowboy shirt with an embroidery of a bucking bronco on the back. There’s fringe on the sleeves and when he drags the swing set over next to the dirty pool, the leathery strands ripple in the breeze.

“Gonna let people slide down for prizes,” he says, and I can’t imagine who’d wanna willingly go into that cesspool, but I know by the end of the night people will be drunk enough to think it’s a great idea and someone will leave with glass embedded in the bottom of their foot.

People are arriving slowly and Trina’s made the frozen pizzas even though she’s already had McDonald’s. She the kind of skinny that doesn’t make sense for how much she eats, especially considering how big her boobs are, but I keep thinking she’s gonna thicken up one of these days. I adjust the straps on my tank top and try to push my boobs out a little more, but there’s not too much to work with.

I call over to Jimmy, to see if he wants another drink, but he’s not paying attention.

It’s purple twilight out and the backyard smells like smoke and crushed grass and dirt. Already people have thrown their empty plastic cups into the pool and they float there in the gloaming like tiny red submarines. Trina’s sitting on some deck chairs with her friends Dana-Marie-Chrissy. They all look exactly like Trina but worse somehow, like flattened out versions, so I just call them DMC. They date the KMB, all of them have dated each other, they’re not picky, so it’s even harder to tell them apart. Too much dark eye makeup; girls who wear the kind of lipgloss that streaks your chin sticky when you kiss them.

The music vibrates in my chest and wonder if Roni’s gonna stop by the party even though we’re broken up again. She’s got waist length black hair and big brown eyes and crooked teeth that she sometimes uses to bite my neck. She doesn’t like any of these people, my people, Roni calls them. We met at school when we both took classes in nursing but then neither of us became nurses because Roni really wanted to work with animals and I couldn’t make myself care enough about people to want to heal them.

Now I work reception at the Mini Cooper dealership and Roni goes to vet school. She’s almost finished and she’s gonna open her own vet practice, and that’s why we fight so much now, because she’s pursuing her dreams and I can’t think of a single career I’d want to spend more than a week on. You have no ambition, she told me, and I said ambition is a thing that gets you into hope, and hope just leads to hopelessness. That kind of negativity really bums Roni out.

It’s full dark and I’ve had enough beers I stop caring about how many. My hair is a ball of frizz so big it feels alive, separate from my body. I push it back with damp hands and look at all the people, so many I don’t know, even though the same assholes show up for every single party Jimmy throws. You meet them when you’re drunk and their names smear into white noise. KMBDMCRBTKLBC.

Jimmy’s got on a cowboy hat and he looks like someone I’d avoid if I saw them on the street. He puts an arm around my neck and lets me have a bite of his frozen pizza. I gnaw the crust while he talks to KMB and some other people, smoky pork filling my nose, not understanding anything anyone is saying over the wail of music and a hundred annoying voices. I feed him back the pizza and he pats my head and gives me the cowboy hat, which will absolutely look much better on me. Jimmy has been my friend since before I had friends. I don’t know a time when my life didn’t have him in it, smiling dumbly, just happy to be there. You enable each other’s bad behavior, Roni says, you bring out the worst qualities in each other, but really I think she’s just never had a best friend.

Someone’s dog noses into my crotch and I push it away, and when it comes back again I give it the rest of the pizza crust and go inside. It’s hot and overwhelmingly loud, thump thump thump like a repeated kick in the chest. The pink plastic kiddie pool has been pulled into the center of the room and a guy wearing black jeans and no shirt is sitting inside with the gator, cross-legged, trying to feed it ribs. The gator’s tail makes a whump-whump-whump against the side of the plastic tub that I can’t hear, only see. The Christmas lights turn everyone’s faces cheesy-white and green. Someone is scraping leftover pizza residue off the side of the box where it was cut with a knife. I haven’t eaten all day and I’m sad, thinking there will never be a day the same as this because Jimmy won’t live in the hangover house anymore, and if he doesn’t live there, what does that mean for our friendship? I drink another beer from the fridge, a bottled one, the label peeling off wet in my hands because the fridge isn’t cold enough.

“Help me with something,” Trina shouts in my ear. Her eye makeup’s a little drippy at the inside corners, but everything else is still perfect. She grabs my hand and leads me back to Jimmy’s bedroom, where it smells like dirty sheets and old food and cheap cologne and laundry that hasn’t been done in a few weeks. Bachelor funk, I call it. Trina’s house only smells like vanilla plug-in air fresheners.

He’s got a bathroom, the only bedroom in the house that’s got one, and she pulls me in there to point out a hole that’s opened up in the side of her dress. The fabric is cheap, springy polyester so it’s pulling wide every time she takes a breath.

“Help me pin it,” she says, “Fuck,” she says, and she’s pulling it down her arms, over her chest until it sags deflated around her middle. We dig for safety pins in the drawers of Jimmy’s vanity, only finding attachments to an electric razor and another black plastic comb and a mostly used tube of toothpaste. She smells a little sour and her chest is close to my arm when she bends over to scratch at her knee.

“Don’t do that,” I say, because I know what she’s doing, but then it doesn’t matter because she’s sitting on the counter and my tongue is in her mouth. She tastes like gum that’s been chewed on too long. I put one hand up her dress and the other one slips into her bra and finds her nipple.

“Do you like that,” I ask, because it’s stupid and I don’t know what else to say that wouldn’t be stupid for such a stupid situation.

We do that for too long, longer than I want. Longer than she wants. I don’t know if we are thinking about the people we are touching anymore. She has become just a landscape of flesh, that could belong to a dog I’m petting. Afterward her bra is askew and I right it for her while she wipes spit off my chin with her thumb. Her lipstick still looks perfect and I tell her so, though her hair is flyaway from the hold the gel had over it.

“It’s not gel, it’s hairspray,” she says, but I don’t care and she doesn’t really, either. Her dress still has the hole, but it was never about that, it’s never about what you think it’s gonna be about, and that’s the saddest part of life. I go out first and drink another beer in the kitchen and look through the window where a cloud of smoke is billowing through the extra Christmas lights someone’s lassoed into an oak tree.

Out back feels quieter, even though it’ll feel loud enough in a minute. Jimmy and the KMB are pulling out fireworks from a big black garbage bag. “Where’s my hat,” Jimmy asks, and I remember it’s on the floor of his bathroom from when I stepped on it, bare foot sinking through the crown. He doesn’t care and he puts his arm around my neck and I can feel the hot wick of sweat against my bare shoulder.

When the first firework explodes in the sky, I’m gnawing on a rib. It’s sickeningly sweet, but it’s cleaning the taste of girl out of my mouth. Jimmy’s got sauce on his shirt and he’s holding the pig head like he wants to dance with it. He throws it to someone and one of the fireworks explodes deep inside the leafy crown of the oak tree overhead. Someone tosses the pig’s chewed skull into the deep end of the pool. It floats there on a bright loam of algae and leaves for a few seconds, then slowly sinks below the surface of the water as the tree brightens, turning the sky ruby-indigo-violet.

“Call the fire department,” one of the DMC says, but she’s wobbling on one leg with her pants half off, struggling into a bikini, and no one’s gonna call anybody about anything.

After a few minutes the fire snuffs itself out and more fireworks are lit, shooting up into the black until the whole world is sparkling and crackling. I throw up most of my beers behind a big stand of hibiscus and then I grab another to wash the barf off my tongue. My brain is alive, fuzzing, and I think I see Roni, but of course I don’t it’s just another girl with beautiful long hair and muscular arms who doesn’t want anything to do with me.

You don’t have any passion, Roni said when she left, and I maybe I don’t, but what I think is she could’ve had enough for both of us. Or maybe what I think is passion means change and I don’t want anything changing, ever. What’s so great about that?

Someone’s dragging the pink pool outside with the gator still lolling in the bottom, and as they get it half on the patio, it decides to make a break for it. “Oh shit,” Jimmy yells and grabs at it while girls scream and scatter, everyone tossing down their cups that they’re just gonna have to refill again in a few minutes. The gator isn’t having it. It wiggles wildly and its long tail hits the sliding door. The noise is like someone cracking open the world’s largest ice cube tray. Glass shatters into a million sparkling pieces, everything into glitter.

Once the gator’s back in the baby pool, Jimmy drags the whole thing over to the side of the bigger pool and lets it rest there for a minute, bent over, laughing. “You’re goddamn stupid,” Trina says, smacking the back of his neck. Jimmy picks her up by the waist and swings her around until she shrieks, and then he kisses her hard enough I feel the teeth click together in my own mouth.

A song comes on that everybody knows and everyone is singing it, though nobody actually knows the words. I am another beer in and I’m standing on an ant hill. I go put my feet in the kiddie pool to wash them off, thinking about what Roni would say about the gator, as a vet, she wouldn’t like it, but the gator’s not in the little pink round tub anymore at least.

Roni will still be sleeping when it’s time for me to go home. I can still head over there, I think. Slide beneath the covers. Forget any of this ever happened. Find passion in something if she wants it bad enough.

“This is it,” Jimmy says. He’s got beer on his shorts. “That’s all there is.”

“There will be others,” I say, but we both know there won’t.

I watch the gator slip into the shallow end. It slides under the haze of dirty cups and wrappers, gliding along the surface to sit kinglike in the muck, uncaring of the noise or any of the people milling through the yard. I finish my beer and set the cup gently down in the wreck as a big firework goes off overhead, painting the whole sky morning for a bright, single moment.

Kristen Arnett is a queer fiction and essay writer. She won the 2017 Coil Book Award for her debut short fiction collection, Felt in the Jaw, and was awarded Ninth Letter's 2015 Literary Award in Fiction. She's a bimonthly columnist for Literary Hub and her work has appeared at North American Review, The Normal School, Gulf Coast, TriQuarterly, Guernica, PBS Newshour, McSweeneys, Electric Literature, Bennington Review, Tin House Flash Fridays/The Guardian, Salon, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Her debut novel,  Mostly Dead Things , will be published by Tin House Books in June 2019. You can find her on twitter here:  @Kristen_Arnett

Kristen Arnett is a queer fiction and essay writer. She won the 2017 Coil Book Award for her debut short fiction collection, Felt in the Jaw, and was awarded Ninth Letter's 2015 Literary Award in Fiction. She's a bimonthly columnist for Literary Hub and her work has appeared at North American Review, The Normal School, Gulf Coast, TriQuarterly, Guernica, PBS Newshour, McSweeneys, Electric Literature, Bennington Review, Tin House Flash Fridays/The Guardian, Salon, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Her debut novel, Mostly Dead Things, will be published by Tin House Books in June 2019. You can find her on twitter here: @Kristen_Arnett

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