Willard was adjusting his left cufflink when he found Dorothy dead in the dryer, mummied in bloodstained linen and down. His stomach contracted as he fell back against the wall and clamped a silk handkerchief to his gaping mouth, just barely smothering the high-pitched whinny threatening to escape. Dorothy’s white, feline body lay in hideous imitation of rest, stiff and prostrate in a swath of queen-sized bedding. The dark cave of soft clothes had always been her favorite napping spot, and Willard realized he must have turned on the dryer and dashed off too quickly to hear her muffled cries as she spun and twirled and suffocated in the heavy fabric and stifling heat, hitting the sides of her metal coffin in cushioned thumps. Willard leaned his head back and squeezed his mouth still more tightly. He could barely breathe. A moment passed before he straightened up decisively, tucked his pocket square back into its sheath and drew one last shuddered breath. Dinner would be served in the River Room and his guests were due to arrive any minute. Willard winced as he — just for now — shut out any thought of his beloved Dorothy with a tinny, not-quite-hollow bang.
Willard descended the stairs, wrapped uniformly down two sides of his cavernous entrance hall, and took a moment to compose himself in the mirror at the base. He re-tucked his mint-green shirt and shooed a defiant strand of hair back with the rest before striding to the back of the hall and down to the second of two steps into the River Room. He still hesitated before walking onto the transparent floor, as if the three feet of polished glass would splinter with the inaugural tap of his unworn heel and give way to the black ebb of McCreary’s underneath. He stepped delicately from the dark mahogany and onto the clear floor, which continued across the large room and up the far wall, offering an uninterrupted view of the opposing bank and thick woods beyond. Willard often felt like he was floating when he looked at the undulating laps at the base of the wall. Every spring, when the river rose above its normal few inches — sometimes creeping over a foot above the floor — Willard would imagine the room as a great glass buoy, bobbing up and down with the chop and churn of the water. He enjoyed these voyages with a glass of brandy or cup of lavender tea, secure in his brown leather chair with its high back facing the entrance hall.
Willard watched the moon on the water, dark slits tearing across its pearly face and disappearing as the ripples swept beneath. It had been choppier Tuesday, when Willard had last taken Dorothy for a brisk midwinter walk. They had gone to the north of the house and then to the south, where on both sides the solid walls of the River Room cut into the tide. She had loved the fresh snow, jumping and —
Willard shook Dorothy out of his head and checked his watch. Six past eight.
Where was everyone? He never understood why people insisted on being late, especially when the invitation clearly stated — in embossed gold foil — eight o’clock sharp. Willard paced nervously to the table that stood along the left white wall. He nudged a salad fork back into place and turned over a napkin whose creased side was facing up. He slid his hands into his pockets and took a deep breath. He scanned the room and then sat in one of the dining chairs before moving to the green chaise near the large fireplace, then to the stool by the piano in the corner. He played a few bars of Mozart’s “Moonlight Sonata” and pressed his tongue against the side of his mouth in concentration. He had been practicing the piece for weeks. He couldn’t play anything else — he had no formal training and possessed uncharacteristically stubby fingers — but that hardly mattered. No one need know this if he performed successfully tonight.
Bartholomew Holt, Willard’s late father, had been an excellent pianist, naturally, and included a grand piano in the layout of every house he designed. Willard felt he could have been an excellent pianist too, if, of course, he had ever wanted to. He did hope someone would ask him to play tonight. Willard pressed a few of the keys, which shook timorously into silence as he lit the fireplace with a long-stemmed match from the mantle. He sat down in his leather chair as the fire crackled into life, crossed his right leg over his left and then his left over his right, then stood up and sat down in the needlepoint chair across the square coffee table. He tried a few more places and positions and perspectives as he awaited his guests.
The doorbell chimed, echoing through the boxed hall. Willard sat up with a start, patted down his shirt and walked — slow, measured, his back uncomfortably erect — up the steps to the foyer. His eyes grew wide as he saw Dorothy’s leather leash hanging limply from the hook by the door. He pulled it off and tossed it into the wooden trunk before flinging the door open.
It was Mrs. Norton, huffing and puffing and wearing a beige trench coat that was far too large for her five-foot frame. She leaned forward and stepped duck-footed into the room, as if an enormous weight hung from her navel. Willard kissed her on the cheek and offered to take her coat.
“No no, I’ll keep it on for now. My it’s cold outside — I always forget I have to walk so far.” The late Mr. Holt designed his homes so visitors would be forced to appreciate the building before entering. “Where is the bathroom again? I have to pee.”
Willard motioned to the left and asked if she would like a drink (“Red wine, please, if you have it. White, actually. Through this door?”), before returning to the River Room to pour her chardonnay. He quickly went to the bookshelf by the fireplace and flipped through the novel she had given him the year before, reminding himself of the protagonist’s name. He hadn’t finished it, but he had a number of comments prepared.
Mrs. Norton was from the book club his father had arranged for him at twenty-five. Bartholomew Holt had been desperate to engage his son in the arts after he showed no aptitude for writing or painting or, alas, architecture. The club disbanded soon after Bart’s death — Willard saw no need for these monthly reminders of fatherly disappointment — but Mrs. Norton still accepted the invitation to dinner every year.
Mr. Bates flung the door open with a loud bang and strode heavy-footed into the entrance hall with his daughter, Beatrice. His face was red and chapped.
“The happiest of birthdays, Willie.” Willard pressed his lips together in imitation of a grin. “Over the hill, eh? How does it feel? Oh I’m only joking. Trust me, the best is yet ahead! Life doesn’t begin until you’re forty. That’s what I tell Bea, though she still has two — three? — years.”
He chortled and squeezed his godson with unnecessary force, then slapping him fervently on the back until his black hair fell in front of his eye.
“Arnie, I’m so glad you could come. Hello, Beatrice. So lucky you were visiting. You look absolutely stunning.”
Bea smiled in her green gown and kissed the air next to his cheek. She was almost attractive, Willard had long ago decided. All of her features were perfectly fair on their own, but failed to come together somehow. Maybe it was the end of her nose, which turned up not unlike a small pig.
“Do you still take gin, Arnie? Vodka tonic, Beatrice?”
He grunted and she nodded. Willard led them to the River Room (“Oh I always forget.” “Your father was a genius.”) and directed them to the antique chaise.
“We’re just waiting on one more. Nathaniel is coming. You know, my cousin from New York. You met him last year, I believe. Yes that’s the one — the poet.”
They chuckled and exchanged glances before taking a toast (“To the Holts, both here and there!”) and engaging with their cocktails. Mrs. Norton returned and stood directly in front of the fireplace, rubbing her arms and legs firmly as she said hello to Bea and Mr. Bates (“It’s Arnie, please”).
“Lovely piano. I forget, do you play?” she ventured as she took her glass and sat down in the needlepoint chair. Willard nodded humbly and waved away requests (“Later, maybe. I do have one new piece. After pie, maybe, why yes I did make one this year.”). He checked his watch and looked purposefully into the kitchen. He felt strangely unsettled.
Mr. Bates took his gin around the room, muttering and nodding periodically. Willard joined him by the dining room table and stared at the large canvas of black and grey and brown on the white wall, a window that seemed cut directly from the floor.
“Always underestimated as a painter, in my opinion, your father. No doubt he was better at this,” he said, motioning around the room, “but still.”
A sip, a gulp, then a look at the floor.
“You were working on your own painting the last time I was here. Did you finish?” Mr. Bates asked hopefully.
“Yes. I mean yes I was working on it. In the end I stopped with that one, though. Bored, I suppose. I’m thinking of a new one now, actually. Haven’t started it yet, but,” Willard explained. He sighed and scratched an imaginary itch on the back of his neck before loosening and then tightening his watchband.
A pounding on the door meant the last guest had arrived. Nathaniel’s blond curls scattered indiscriminately about his egg-like head as he pushed open the door and hugged his cousin. His large, wet eyes darted anxiously around the room.
“Happy birthday! Oh! Oh, who are these people?” he asked as he looked up and blinked, bewildered. His long face seemed to sink at the sides as he unwrapped several layers of clothing to drape over the wrought iron coat stand.
Willard introduced his cousin to the others before handing him a cognac and coaster. Nathaniel’s hands shook violently as he took the brown drink.
“Excellent. We’re all here. Dinner should be ready soon. Nathaniel, sit. Do you all think it’s going to snow tonight?” Willard offered weakly as they sipped their drinks. Willard reached for his brandy and took a healthy gulp as Mr. Bates proudly told Mrs. Norton how he knew Willard (“I’m the one who built his dad’s dream homes”) while looking askance. Nathaniel was gazing — almost on the verge of tears, it seemed — at Beatrice, who was singularly consumed by the clasp on her black handbag. Mr. Bates thrust himself up from the arm of the chaise to show Mrs. Norton the metal struts that ran along the joint between the mahogany and glass.
“Come, Nathaniel, you’ll want to see this,” Mr. Bates insisted.
Nathaniel pulled himself away but went to the opposite end of the room. He crouched down and placed his hands, shoulder-length apart, on the floor to peer into the dark abyss.
“Willie?” Nathaniel looked up expectantly. “Are there any fishies in this river?”
The guests all turned to Willard, who puffed up and explained, “No. No fish in McCreary’s. Wouldn’t that be a sight, though —”
“’Course there are fish in McCreary’s,” Mr. Bates interjected. “Haddock and cod, especially this close to the coast.”
“No,” Willard responded in a restrained but undoubtedly higher tone. “I really don’t believe there are.”
“Sure there are. Why do you think your dad and I put in a glass floor?”
There were not fish in the river. If there were fish in the river, Willard would have seen them. He wasn’t stupid, and he was insulted that Mr. Bates would believe he wouldn’t notice a school of cod swimming underfoot. In truth, he had often dreamt about brightly colored fish swirling up against the (“No, well I’ve never, in any case”) glass floor, splashing silently about and then being carried off by the black pull of the undertow, making space for the next — oh, a scarlet and navy blue one, how enormous! — that would swim (“Perhaps, but again I’ve never”) around the shadow of his body, pressed against the cold lens of the floor, before swimming off with the rest of his rainbow companions —
“Yes, yes, I believe you Arnie,” Willard relented as he rose from his watery reverie. He was quite agitated, and was surprised to find he was now standing by the far windowed wall. No one seemed to have noticed.
“I just love fish,” Nathaniel mused wistfully. He sighed. “Just imagine. Do you like fish, Bea —”
A loud beep from the kitchen graciously curtailed the conversation — “Everyone sit, dinner is ready. There are place cards.” — and Willard went up the stairs to the kitchen on the left of the foyer. Nathaniel followed, and Willard did his best to ignore him as he pulled the metal trays from the oven, which issued a large cloud of steam with a low hiss.
“Willie, you must, I mean, that girl — that woman, rather — she’s, well, she’s —”
“Please, Nathaniel, sit back down. I’ll only be a moment.”
Nathaniel blinked and turned around dramatically, turned back — “Oh, do you —” “No —” “But, I —” “She’s fond of horses, Nathaniel, you can ask her about that.” “Aha!” — before rushing out. Willard placed a dainty bed of greens on a pewter platter and sprinkled cranberries on top. He reached for an apple — should he? Oh, why not. Just imagine their reactions! — before plopping the body of meat onto the plate. But salad was first.
“Oh, the French way,” Mrs. Norton said smiling, pleased with herself, doubling her chin as she peered down at the first course.
Bea speared her spinach leaves as she explained the rules of dressage (“Some call it horse ballet, there are quite a lot of rules I doubt you’d want to, oh, well, okay then”) and Mr. Bates, finishing his fourth drink of the night, was explaining the late Mr. Holt’s last, unrealized building.
“Abbbsolutely unreal. The sketches are in one of his books — Willie, I know you have it somewhere in here — yes, yes, it was going to be in Japan.”
This was not how he had planned it at all, not at all. Willard was quite uncomfortable and could not remember why he insisted on doing this every year. He twirled his cufflink around before cutting Mr. Bates off.
“Speaking of books, Mrs. Norton, the book you gave me last year, ‘Leaves of Avignon,’ simply marvelous. Oh, I can’t tell you.”
Mrs. Norton looked confused, then nodded and looked down.
“Oh, oh yes. Mhm, so glad you enjoyed it.”
Willard continued, unfazed.
“The way he, Hal, yes, is characterized, and the oak tree, used symbolically, of course.”
Mrs. Norton hmm-hmmed as she punctured a cherry tomato between her large teeth. She sucked and smacked and then asked, “Where is your cat? I remember your cat, white, beautiful — yes, I would love some more, thank you, the white, yes, not too much now, a bit more, yes, thank you — what was her name? Darlene?”
“Dorothy.” Willard swallowed hard. “She’s around here somewhere. Dorothy?”
Willard was surprised at how easily he resuscitated his albino cat. He called a few more times and clicked his tongue against the roof of his mouth, then whistled. He stood up, even, and called her name (“Oh, she must be hiding somewhere, she is a clever one, quite particular”) before chuckling. He filled Mr. Norton’s glass as he told them about their walk last Tuesday. Dorothy had swiped at her reflection (“Your father once had a dog, Benjamin — did you know?”) and almost fallen in the river. Oh, it was the cutest little thing, her furry body the exact shade as the snow. He could barely even (“Okay, well then we gallop —” “Fascinating!”) see her as she jumped about, having quite the time, the snow almost going up to her tail! You see, Dorothy doesn’t usually like (“I do love dogs. Mr. Norton won’t let me get one though — too much hassle”) water, but she does love snow. She just loves it, Willard explained, like she’s out for something, such a little (“Bea hates dogs, always wanted a pony, the little princess”) hunter — quite ferocious, in fact. She often caught small birds when she was left outside. Willard looked up and noticed everyone was done with salad, enrapt in side-conversation. He was standing by the staircase.
“Ready for the next course?”
The guests all uttered assents and Willard walked a bit unsteadily into the kitchen. He clasped the counter and took a deep breath before heaving the plate up — oh my, was it heavy! — and backing slowly out the door.
“A special treat,” a strained Willard struggled to say as he set the suckling pig in the middle of the table with a heavy thud, olives in the eyes and a shined red apple enclosed in its snout.
“Oh wow —”
“How extravagant! —”
“Just like your father! Here, let me.”
Willard nervously surrendered the carving knife to Mr. Bates, who had just opened a third bottle of wine.
The pig occupied much of the table and most of the conversation (“Who wants what?” “Quite tender” “Beautiful creature” “Just vegetables for me, please” “Me too, actually”) and Willard became quite agitated as he struggled to stay afloat in conversation. His mind drifted through the far window and skimmed the opposite bank. The pine trees were dense here, and Willard stepped on the fallen needles, which sank and (“Right, yes, it’s on the shelf. All his buildings, yes. We can look at it after we finish.”) sprang back up as he lifted his foot. He spent some time looking at the porcine snout’s resemblance to Bea’s before he transitioned to the spot of grease on Mr. Bates’ lapel. Nathaniel was devouring the subtle intricacies of a three-layered saddle and (“I’m so glad you like it, Mrs. Norton”) the dryer was still full upstairs. He would have to get rid of it eventually — if only it would just disappear! The room felt more stable than normal with other people inside. Willard did not like it one bit, it was too crowded, and his mind pulled fruitlessly at the connecting struts before sinking below the floor into the fishless river. He couldn’t sit still and suddenly wished everyone would leave so he could return (“Please, help yourself”) unhindered back into his own world.
“Willie, that one in Maine. Let’s take a look at it.” Mr. Bates’ voice had risen and his vowels began to mush with the masticated pork in his mouth. “Oh you must see, Mrs. Norton. Much different from this one, equally brilliant, though. Nathaniel, I know you’d love it too. Just genius, your uncle, absolute genius —”
“I’ve actually done a couple of sketches for a building myself, recently,” Willard said softly. He looked up with a start when he realized people had heard his blatant lie. He improvised.
“A guest house.”
A flushed Mr. Bates looked at him quizzically.
“In the woods, across the river. It’s still our property for a couple more acres —
“It is. Bart got sixty” —
“Haven’t done much yet, just some ideas.”
“That’s fantastic, Willie,” Mr. Bates decided. “I would love to look at them, go get them” —
“Oh no, no, not ready to be looked at” —
“Just a few, I insist. I could help you with logistics, put it together, really” —
“No, really, I’d rather not.”
It was silent. This was so clearly untrue. Willard tried to say something but it felt like a large marble was lodged in his throat.
“Let’s look at those pictures,” Mr. Bates continued. “That one in —
“How about pie? —
“I’ll get it — in the fridge? — I love that kitchen. Beautiful kitchen, excellent design — I helped with it, actually — state of the art appliances. Industrial fridge.”
Willard relented and Mr. Norton bounded up the stairs and charged through the kitchen door. Willard slumped an inch in his chair as he fingered the handkerchief in his breast pocket. He got up, persisting, and refilled Nathaniel’s glass (“Oh, oh hello. Yes, thank you. I was just reciting a few lines for Bea from —”) before striding determinedly to the piano and sitting on the wooden stool, the bottom of each leg carved into distinct claws grasping blue spheres of glass. He began his piece softly, steadily gaining momentum and then closing his eyes and pressing harder. He imagined Bea and Nathaniel and Mrs. Norton had turned around (“Oh that’s marvelous.” “What talent!”) as he continued playing, drowning out the room and his guests. His fingers slipped on one of the keys, sending the adjacent one down harshly, and he struggled to regain his rhythm, hoping that no one had heard —
A loud bang and yell exploded from the entrance hall. Willard’s beautiful key lime-pie — in the blue arabesque pan, once with curlicues of cream on the edge — had fallen and slid down the mahogany steps, as had Mr. Bates. He began laughing — great big bellows that became tiny wheezes spraying through his teeth. Mrs. Norton chuckled amiably, Bea looked embarrassedly at her father — Nathaniel uneasily at her — and Willard tugged rather hard at his left eyebrow to pull it down. Mr. Bates let out one final yell (“There’s still champagne! Oh, no bother I’ll clean it up”) and Willard slumped down in his leather chair, closed his eyes, and imagined they all were gone. Mr. Bates’ voice was just so loud though. He opened the bottle (“To Willie!”) with a suctioned pop, clinking every glass as he filled the flutes with champagne froth. They were almost gone, Willard reminded himself. He was so close. Then he remembered.
“One moment please,” Willard muttered to no one in particular, looking down through the floor and then gliding up the steps with glazed eyes, not even noticing that his black, oiled coif had disintegrated into strands in front of his face. He mechanically ascended the stairs to the laundry room on the second floor and pulled his paisley handkerchief over his mouth, sending the silk aflutter in punctuated puffs. He turned his face to the side, clenched his teeth and stretched his eyebrows up and up as he slammed open the metal box and scooped its contents into a black plastic bag, his stubby fingers scraping the thin sides of the dryer with metallic echoes. Poor, poor Dorothy! He marched out the door (“Just taking out the trash. My it’s late, isn’t it?”) and walked to the side of the house, not bothering to put on his coat, his breath sending white streams into the black air. He could hear music from the other side of the opaque wall that jutted into the river (was that Mr. Bates?) as he gazed into the dark water. He walked a few meters upstream and refused to watch as Dorothy, in her white wrap (yes that was definitely Mr. Bates), fell unceremoniously into the water. A small plunk and an even smaller splash and she disappeared into the current. A few deceiving bubbles rose and then popped a few feet down. He threw the bag in after her. The night was still, the glossy top of the river perfectly mimicking the floor of the River Room (did he hear a crack?). It was usually choppier. Willard clutched himself as he hurried back inside.
Willard rubbed the cold off himself and noticed — how curious! — that his guests were crowding around a spot on the glass floor. He composed himself as he went down the stairs.
“— it was! Why, we both saw it, Mrs. Norton, didn’t we? Willard!” Mr. Bates yelled, saw his godson was right beside him, then gripped his shoulder tightly. “I told you there were fish in this river. A great big white one. We just saw it! Slid right up against the floor and across the room to other side!”
They all murmured excitedly and looked down, as if this discussion would somehow summon another. Willard knew wearily that it wouldn’t, there wasn’t, and there hadn’t been. But they would remember there being a fish, and this was reassuring. It was as real to them as this party was to him, which is to say —
Willard yawned audibly, waiting for his guests to lift and leave. He heard another crack, yes he certainly did this time, he was sure of it, a distinct splintering (“Another drink, Willie? Oh come on, just one more. Your father, he could drink. Now there was a man”) and a splash. They had to leave. Willard yawned again, and became entirely disengaged from his party.
“I really am quite tired. This has been splendid. My best birthday yet!”
His guests all looked at each other, unsure, and then, muttering, prepared to leave (“I’ll drive, Dad, yes, yes, oh, mhm really a pleasure to meet you too, yes I do hope I see you again, I —” “Willard! Happy birthday, my boy. Excellent pork, really.”)
He ushered them out (“No you put your coat on the chaise, I’ll get it, Mrs. Norton. Here, Bea, your bag, alright, alright, yes, alright, it was, wasn’t it, Nathaniel you’re going back to New York tomorrow anyway, yes, thank you, goodbye, goodbye, drive safe, mhm, yes, goodbye!”) and slammed the door, sliding the bolt into place with a comforting clack. He took a deep breath and looked in the mirror, pulled his jacket closed, and buttoned the top brass button which he was surprised to notice had come undone. He flicked his bow tie into place and ran his hand through his hair, patting the ebony wisps back into position. Willard turned his head to the side and admired his profile. It was the Holt profile, an uninterrupted curve from the top of the forehead down to the tip of the nose — the same as his father’s and many Holts’ before that.
Willard sat down on the stool and played his Mozart the way he had meant to play it. He closed his eyes and felt himself sink a couple of inches down and then back up, down then back. A sudden jet of chilled air issued from a small split that began by the doorway to the room — his room — along the joint between the mahogany and glass. A resounding crack and the room was almost unhinged, with just one final strut fixed stubbornly in place. He grasped and pulled and wrangled it loose until, with a final metal bang, it all came undone. The room rocked back with unbound inertia, tipped almost but not quite on its windowed wall, rocking back and settling to a pleasant bob. Willard poured another glass of brandy (“Moonlight Sonata” still played, slow, languorous, a real talent) as a great big fish — blue and grey and emerald — floated under his loafers. Dorothy wound her white body around his legs, pressing and purring then pawing, until he picked her up and drew his long, thin fingers down her albino fur. She cooed as they set off, unanchored at last.