Carefully Scripted

J. Michael Norris

Marcus Wadley arrives at the party twenty-two minutes late, during the timeframe he finds makes the best impression. The Uber ride from Metairie to Uptown only took twelve minutes, shorter than he expected. He’s wearing the suit his mother helped him pick out a few years ago from the Sears at the old mall, back when he still lived with her, before the dementia. He knows the suit fits a bit too loosely for current trends, but he’s never cared much for fads; it’s hard enough to keep track of the long-term rules. He’s got on his good tie and his good shoes, so he should be fine.
He tests the knob and it turns; Marcus has learned that at parties like this the front doors are often left open for guests to let themselves in. His mother would call the house, with the exterior covered in carved wooden cutouts, a gingerbread, even though it’s nothing like a man-shaped cookie. Marcus wonders at a pile of purses near the stairs in the empty foyer; couldn’t someone just take one? Music and chatter float from the back of the house, so he makes his way there, steeling himself for the small talk he’ll have to bear. It smells clean, like fake pine and soap, the way a house should smell when you’re expecting company. 
He goes over the questions he prepared ahead of time, to make sure he doesn’t get stumped.
How do you know Miss Jackie? 
What do you teach? 
Are your students engaged this year? 

No one notices when he enters the—living room, he’ll call it—where most of the guests grip cocktails in one hand as they mingle. That’s what he calls this, mingling. It’s a sufficiently vague word used for specific social gatherings, a word Marcus imagines as a portmanteau of muddling and tingling, the two things he decides the word best describes. 
No, the wood-paneled room is probably more of a den. 
The retirement party is for Jaqueline Owens, an English teacher at Delgado Community College. Marcus works there in IT, mostly resetting email passwords for people who’ve forgotten theirs. She’d also taught at the University of New Orleans, which is why, Marcus figures, he only recognizes some of the faces from work. He scans the room for the English Department Chair, Evelyn, an old friend of his mother who insisted they all come, but she’s nowhere to be found. Marcus’s mother had worked at Delgado as a history teacher, helped him get the job back in 2003. It’s Evelyn’s house, so she’s probably off in the kitchen helping with hors d’oeuvres or cocktails or some other secret function a missing hostess might be up to. That, or hiding in the master bathroom, where he’d be if this was his house and his party.
A younger woman with flat hair and a flat forehead leans against a window frame. She gazes into the yard, sipping quickly from a fluted glass, the pink contents disappearing in a way Marcus knows means she’s nervous. Or an alcoholic. Or a nervous alcoholic. He thinks that’s a good opening line, so he walks over to the flattened woman and asks which of those she is, nervous, an alcoholic, or both. 
”I’m waiting for someone,” she answers, then drains the narrow glass and clinks it against the window. “Should be here any minute, thanks.”
“You’re welcome.” Marcus smiles reflexively. 
She pushes herself away from the window frame, causing her cheeks to puff out and air to scatter her bangs. She’s less flat now. 
“How do you know Miss Jackie?” Marcus asks. 
“I think it’s time for another drink.” The woman pulls her lips into a tight line and flattens out again, making her way across the room toward an open door that leads to the kitchen. 
How do you know Miss Jackie? 
What do you teach? 
Are your students engaged this year? 

He should have stuck to his list. Things always get so mixed up when he tries to wing it. A few years back at an office Christmas party he tried talking to a coworker’s wife about a documentary he’d watched on the Apollo 11 Moon landing, explaining that NASA had carefully scripted Neil Armstrong’s words but that Neil had left out an “a” when the time came. Was supposed to be “One for step for a man.” The woman insisted the moon landing was faked, so it didn’t matter anyway what Neil Armstrong said. Marcus had called her an imbecile and almost gotten himself fired. 
Marcus shakes off the memory of the Christmas party and takes the flat woman’s place at the window, gazing out into the yard to try and see what she seemed so interested in. Nothing outside but grass, glowing a bit under the moonlight, and cars jumbled along the edge of the street. 
Oh, the reflections! 
Ghosts of the people behind him fill the windowpane, their lips moving to the sounds of the room. A cute guy Marcus recognizes from Delgado leans against a wall talking to a young woman, his hand circling in the air, punctuating his words. He’d come into IT once to get his employee number, back when he’d first started teaching there. Marcus remembers him because of his too-white teeth and the way his smile crooked to one side. Mother told Marcus boys like that were trouble, temptations sent to make Marcus act foolish, sinful. A strange guilt bubbles in Marcus’s chest as he studies the guy’s reflection, letting his eyes trace the curves in the guy’s pants. 
A biology teacher Marcus knows appears from the foyer, translucent and smiling. Jeffery or Joseph or Jasper or . . . what is his name? He’s holding the hand of a silver-haired woman in an orange dress that ripples as she walks, like it carries its own breeze. The man waves, so Marcus waves back, forgetting for a moment that he’s facing the window. He jerks his hand down as the man with the J name walks straight to another science teacher Marcus recognizes, someone he’s seen but never met. 
Joffrey. His name is Joffrey Adams. 
It bothers Marcus that the names are starting to slip. He had to google Gwyneth Paltrow’s the other day after trying to remember who the cute blond with the overbite was who’d dated Brad Pitt briefly and been in Ironman as Tony Stark’s wife. Well, his assistant in that movie, but no matter. That’s how it began with Mother. Little things, like names. 
He should get a drink, give himself something to do, but the flat woman went into the kitchen and she clearly thought him a bore. Bore. That’s another word that gets used a lot at small gatherings like this. He must look odd to the people in the room standing here, looking out the window. Maybe Joffrey will want to talk. He always nods when they pass in the hallway, says things like “Have a good one” or “Looking sharp!” Yes, that’s what Marcus needs, someone he knows. 
How do you know Miss Jackie? 
What do you teach? 
Are your students engaged this year? 

Marcus goes over the questions he practiced in the mirror at home, mouthing the words a bit to get the feel right. He knows not to ask about children or the weather. Mother told him that was a sure sign you had nothing interesting to say about yourself. Everyone, and I mean everyone, knows those tricks. Except, perhaps, Marcus. He constantly has to remind himself that those weren’t quite the right questions to ask. 
The silver-haired lady wearing the orange wind waits behind Joffrey as he talks to the science teacher Marcus has never met; she’s looking around in the way people do when they’re becoming impatient. Marcus realizes this could be a good in. He checks his hair in the window, then turns around and walks up to the woman, his hand extended boldly. 
She seems focused intently on Joffrey’s back, so Marcus says in his strongest voice, “Hello. I’m Marcus. How do you know Miss Jackie?”
“Miss Jackie?” the woman asks with a slight jump and a shake of her head. “Do  you mean Dr. Owens?”
Joffrey turns from his conversation with the science teacher, his eyes wide and a broad smile pulled across his face. He looks Marcus up and down, then says, “Marcus, my man!” and shakes Marcus’s outstretched hand. “This is my wife, Caroline. I think she wanted to get us some drinks.” He tilts his head towards his wife, raising his eyebrows. 
She looks back and forth quickly between her husband and Marcus. 
“What do you teach?” Marcus asks her. 
“Oh, I’m not a teacher. That’s Joff’s job.” Caroline reaches out and puts her hand on Marcus’s elbow and squeezes. She looks to Marcus for a response, her face assuming an expression of concern. “Is everything okay?”
Panic tightens Marcus’s throat, but he manages to say, “It’s just, my next question is if your students are engaged this year, and now I don’t know what to say.”
Caroline makes a face of mock surprise and giggles. “Oh, you are a funny fellow.”
“Yes,” Joffrey says. “This is the funny fellow I was telling you about on the way here.”
“Oh,” Caroline nods quickly. “Of course, the comedian. Well, Marcus, it’s nice to meet you. But I’m going to head to the kitchen to get a drink. If you’ll excuse me.”
“Sure.” Marcus watches as Caroline pecks Joffrey on the cheek, then floats off into the kitchen. Her tangerine dress continues to billow and sway around her. A gale, almost. 
“Good seeing you, Marcus,” Joffrey says, then turns back to the science teacher. 
Marcus looks around at the groups talking, unable to see a good way into any one of them. A woman he knows who used to work at Delgado years ago stands alone in a corner, staring at her cellphone, the lines of her face emphasized by the glowing screen. He’s not sure if she’s still teaching, so he probably doesn’t want to go up to her with his questions. He turns to his window, but a couple has set up there, holding hands and looking together outside. 
How do you know Miss Jackie? 
What do you teach? 
Are your students engaged this year? 

It’s no use. Marcus knows the night is blown, like usual. But Mother said he had to keep trying. He had to learn. Perhaps a drink will help. Yes, a drink. That helps sometimes. He bolts across the room toward he kitchen.
He stops at the kitchen doorway when he hears a woman inside saying, “But has he always been so rude? Just staring like that?”
“He really means no harm,” a voice he recognizes as Evelyn’s answers. “I mean, he’s always been a bit odd, but it’s much worse since Janet got put into the home. She was his rock. I fear he’s lost without her.”
Dread fills Marcus as he hears his mother’s name. He thinks of their visit this afternoon at the home, her in a thin gown, like something from a hospital. She’d smelled like mustard and eggs and had called him by his father’s name and asked him not to leave, pulling at his shirt sleeve and whispering that people were stealing her teeth. Her breath smelled metallic. 
Woozy, Marcus stumbles to the foyer, past the pile of purses, and out the front door. The night air is muggy, even for south Louisiana in May. Cicadas, fresh from their old skins, buzz in the distance. Marcus takes his phone from his pocket and orders an Uber. Inside, the couple who stole his window press their foreheads together, laughing. 
Under his breath, Marcus whispers, “Are your students engaged this year?” then looks up at the night sky, wondering at the sheer distance between himself and the full moon, wondering if Neil Armstrong really flubbed his big line. 

About the Author

J. Michael Norris has had short fiction published in the Saints and Sinners 2018 Anthology of Fiction, Screen Door Review, and West Wing Craic. While he has lived all around the US, he is currently in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where he teaches English composition at both Southern University and A&M College and Baton Rouge Community College. He earned a BA in Creative Writing from LSU and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of New Orleans. His work often centers around loss and tragedy and the beauty that can be found in those things.