The phone rang so loudly that Mr. Chatterbox could have heard it in Palmetto. He opened his eyes, then shut them tight. He'd gone crazy last night. A pizza, a bag of chips, some Tasty Kreme, some Entenmann's, some Mars bars and an entire coconut cream pie from Yoders. Why was he doing this to himself? Why? Why? What time was it, anyway? He squinted at the red digits. 11:35.
"I am reminding you about the Women in Power Luncheon. Noon at Michael's On East. Good-bye." It was his boss. She knew better than to engage him in conversation this early in the morning.
Mr. Chatterbox calculated that he didn't have time for a shower, which was a shame as he didn't seem to have a clean shirt or socks or underwear. So he poured on some Versace cologne-a Christmas gift from a realtor he had all but kissed and hugged in his column-and ran out the door. A strange car was driving around his trailer park, Enchanted Acres, still in tatters from Hurricane Zelda. Something in his gut told Mr. Chatterbox it was the guy from the collection agency.
He parked in the doctor's office parking lot across from Michael's On East and then, just to be on the safe side, limped across the street. At a table set up outside the ballroom sat an old biddy with a blue rinse. "You're at Table 39," she said, giving him a nametag. "And you're late."
Table 39 was located on the edge of the proceedings, a catch-all of nonentities and losers. Sitting around it, munching a salad of field greens and walnuts, were several low-level volunteers, a secretary whose boss had given her his ticket, a woman who counseled the addicted, and the community news reporters from the Longboat Pennysaver and the Siesta Key Freebie.
Mr. Chatterbox stared with envy at the head table, just visible through the crowd. There sat Marjorie North and her chums. They called themselves the "SRQs" (spoiled rotten queens), and if Sarasota was a high school, they would be its popular girls. Marjorie was the society columnist for the Herald-Tribune, and it was a foolish hostess who did not automatically put her at the head table. She had been honored by every group in town for the simple reason that a dinner for her was an instant sellout, just like a dinner for John Gotti would be an instant sellout.
The program began. A Baptist minister invoked the name of Jesus three times while the table from Temple Beth Sholom threw long-suffering looks at each other. Then a student from Booker High's Performing Arts program played a violin solo later identified as the Flight of the Bumblebee. Then weatherman John Scalzi came out and told some jokes and introduced, one by one, this year's honorees. There were three. The first was a single mom with seven kids who put herself through college while battling cancer. The second had sued a car dealer on the South Trail for sexual harassment and almost won. The third sang her acceptance speech (The Wind Beneath my Wings) and dedicated it to her grandmother, who was serving a 10-year sentence for shooting an abusive husband.
Then, as dessert was served, Linda Larsen came out and delivered a motivational speech about how women are the equal of men and how women should not let men boss them around and how women need to stand up for themselves. The crowd hung on her every word, and, as she finished, rose en masse and cheered. Then they hurried back to their offices before the boss might notice they were gone.
Mr. Chatterbox exited much slower than the rest, with the leisure of someone who worked at home. Presently he found himself walking with Marjorie North.
"Where have you been?" she asked. "I haven't seen you since the Wine Fest tasting party."
"I've been laying low."
They arrived at valet parking. "Will I see you at Hermine's?"
"Of course," said Mr. Chatterbox.
"Ta, ta, then," she said as her car arrived. Mr. Chatterbox watched all four valet parkers fawn over her. Then he limped slowly across the street.
Hermine's? He had no idea what she was talking about.
The next day Mr. Chatterbox asked Marjorie to lunch. They dined at La Cortege, the second most expensive restaurant in Sarasota. It was all dark wood and smoky mirrors and had a very high noise level and people who liked that sort of thing went there all the time and said how awful it was.
"Shall we start with a cocktail?" said Marjorie.
"No, I don't want one. Really. And besides, they give me free food if I mention them in my column but they don't give me free drinks."
They looked around the room and commented on who was there. Mr. Chatterbox realized how depressing it was to be in a profession in which literally all conversation is "shop."
"Who's that fat woman who just waddled in?" said Marjorie. "She seems to know you."
"Yes, that's my mother, actually."
"Oh, I'm sorry."
"No, no, that's quite all right. She slipped off her Atkins."
After a while he said with an air of deadly carelessness:
"Everybody's talking about Hermine's party tonight. The one for Katherine Harris."
He had done his research.
"Yes, aren't they," said Marjorie. "I love Hermine's parties, don't you?"
"Yes. . . Marjorie, I'll tell you a very odd thing. She hasn't invited me."
"I'm sure she will."
"The invitations went out three weeks ago."
They were silent a moment. Then David Band came up and spoke with Marjorie for several minutes. He had just joined the board of "One Last Perk," that new charity organization that grants dying wishes to terminally ill business executives, and wanted her to mention their upcoming gala in her column. He left, saying "I'll see you tonight." He did not once look at Mr. Chatterbox.
"The thing is," Mr. Chatterbox said after a moment, "I don't think she is. Going to invite me, that is. She's mad at me about something."
"People do take things you write about them so seriously," agreed Marjorie.
"But it means ruin for me," said Mr. Chatterbox. "Isn't that Janet Kane?"
Mrs. Kane waved heartily at Marjorie, then blew a kiss. She mouthed something about lunch tomorrow. She did not once look at Mr. Chatterbox.
"It's so unfair. If I miss this party I may as well leave Sarasota for good. They'll replace me with John Karl."
Great tears stood in his eyes waiting to overflow.
"My last column was Eight Great Meals under Eight Dollars ... And they wouldn't even reimburse me . . . No one invites me anywhere anymore."
"I'll tell you what," said Marjorie. "I know Hermine very well. She had the next suite on the Wall Street cruise. We bonded. If you like I'll call her up and ask if I can bring you."
"Would you? Would you, Marjorie? If only you really would. Here, let's do it at once. Put down that roll. Use my cell phone. Quick, quick. Oh, damn, I've lost the number. Here it is!"
Marjorie called Hermine. "Hermine, may I bring someone with me tonight?"
"Well, Marjorie, I really don't think you can," said Hermine. "I can't imagine how he's going to fit in. There are far too many people coming as it is. I'm terribly sorry. Who is it?"
"Mr. Chatterbox. He's very anxious to come."
"I'm sure he is. I don't care for that pompous fool. He wrote about my face lift."
"No. I won't have him inside my house. I've only asked you because I trust you. This is a private occasion to honor Katherine Harris. To reaffirm our support. To celebrate our values."
"My dear, how Republican you sound."
"Four more years," said Hermine sweetly and then hung up.
Back at the offices of SARASOTA Magazine, Mr. Chatterbox wandered into his boss's office.
"Get your invite?"
"Yes," he answered.
"Good, because your copy is so late you'll have to dictate it directly to the printer. You do know how to do that, don't you?"
Mr. Chatterbox's ears turned red at the sarcasm. He knew how to do it because he had done it many times. Even the Eight Great Meals under Eight Dollars had been "phoned in."
"Now go," his boss said. "Today is white lines."
Though Mr. Chatterbox had worked at SARASOTA Magazine over 20 years, he still had no idea what "white lines" were. But he did know them when he saw them, and there was a stack of them right on his boss' desk. He glanced at the top one. It was a preview of the upcoming social season. How strange, he thought. He didn't remember writing that. He looked closer at the by-line.
It was by John Karl.
"Ai, que lujoso!" said Pancho as he peered from the kitchen through the pantry past the breakfast room, the dining room and into the living room of Hermine Bagwell's home.
"It's all right, I guess," said his fellow dishwasher. "If you like that sort of thing."
"That sort of thing" was Anne Folsom Smith at her most extravagant-Spanish pillars, marble floors, custom-made furniture, accents from France and a 20-foot tapestry that hung above the fireplace, depicting either the rape of the Sabine women or a committee meeting to plan the Orchid Ball.
"You two!" screamed Guido Fabrini as he walked into the kitchen. It would have to be a very important party to have Guido there himself. He was Sarasota's most prominent caterer. "Wipe the spots off those *&%$ trays! Polish those %&$# glasses. And you with the beard-what's your name?"
"Jose," replied Mr. Chatterbox. The beard, which he had purchased that afternoon at the party store, was already beginning to itch.
"No beards," screamed Guido. "If you want to keep working for me, you cut off that %$&*$#% beard. Manana. Comprende?"
"Si, senor," replied Mr. Chatterbox as he set about looking busy.
From the window Pancho and Mr. Chatterbox could see the guests beginning to arrive. In spite of the rain a crowd of neighbors had collected near the gate to criticize the gowns and tuxedos with appreciative "oohs" and "ahs" or contemptuous sniffs. Wendy Mann Resnick's cleavage drew particular applause, as did Patricia Laughlin's sequined gown and Elle McComb's daring plunge at her rear. Rita Greenbaum wowed the crowd with a languid glance, brushing her hair back with a hand ringed in diamonds. Some gate-crashers were detected by the security guards. They hurried home to change for a second assault.
No one wanted to miss Hermine Bagwell's party.
Mr. Chatterbox snuck away for a moment. Never had he been more depressed. He wandered upstairs and began to snoop around. It always made him feel better. He checked out the shoes in Hermine's closet. Then he went through her lingerie drawer. Then he looked in her medicine chest.
Katherine Harris rose to speak. A hush fell on the room, beginning at the back and spreading among the guests until only the voice of Annette Scherman could be heard, articulating some details of the hostess' first marriage, until she too was silent.
"My fellow Americans," Katherine said and paused for a moment. She looked resplendent, everyone agreed, in an Oscar de la Renta embroidered with recent Supreme Court decisions. "Thank you for being here tonight."
Mr. Chatterbox crept into the breakfast room, where he could hear more clearly.
"It was a hard campaign. My opponent was a real little pit bull. But I want you to know one thing. I could not have done it without you. Just look at yourselves. Sarasota's best and brightest. You inspire me to do my best. You give me your energy. You make it all worthwhile. Thank you, thank you . . . Sarasota."
The room exploded with applause as Mr. Chatterbox composed the story in his mind. No surprises here. Just list the more prominent names and describe the clothes. He had done it a million times. He began to slink away. Then he saw Marjorie with her camera. "The three of you," she called out. Mr. Chatterbox watched as she composed a shot for her Sunday column in Style. Katherine on one side, Hermine on the other, and in the middle-John Karl.
Mr. Chatterbox crept out the back door, down the road to a vacant lot where he had parked his old Pinto. He drove home in the pouring rain, his wipers not working. The false beard dangled from his chin.
He walked into his trailer and opened the refrigerator. There were three cans of Old Milwaukee left. He opened one and went to the phone.
"Hello," he told the printer. "It's Mr. Chatterbox and I'm ready with my story."
He cleared his throat and began.
"Scenes of wild liberal enthusiasm, comma, reminiscent of a Peter, Paul, and Mary reunion concert, comma, broke out in the heart of Longboat Key last night at the elegant party given for Congresswoman Katherine Harris by hostess Hermine Bagwell. But the platters of shrimp and steamship rounds of roast beef (catered by Guido, dontcha know), elaborate as they were, couldn't hold a candle to the bombshell Katherine delivered to her supporters-she was leaving the Republican Party and becoming a Democrat!"
Lie after monstrous lie sprang from his addled brain.
"Join me in my journey!" she exhorted the crowd, and such was her charisma that within seconds there were murmurs of support. "Tax and spend!" Vern Buchanan called out, and the guests took up the chant. "Turn the Ritz into public housing!" cried Michael Saunders, to great applause. Some onlookers seemed overcome by what they now perceived as past transgressions. "I take back everything I ever said about Hillary Clinton," sobbed Tramm Hudson, falling to his knees. And Graci McGillicuddy, who up until now had remained unmoved by the general commotion, let a blank check flutter from her fingers. "For the DNC!" she cried, and tossed in her diamond necklace as well. In seconds, heirloom jewelry and the latest creations from Cartier and McCarver and Moser rained down to fund left-wing causes. As the emotional wave crested, Margaret Wise stepped forward and had the crowd join hands They began to sing to "This land is your land, this land is my land," while tears coursed down everyone's faces."
Mr. Chatterbox sat back and swallowed the last of the Ambien. For the first time in his life he felt completely happy.
He became sleepier and sleepier. He lay down and closed his eyes. He fought the sleepiness for a while but that seemed silly so he stopped. Soon he was asleep.
He slept for several minutes and then, after a while, he died.
Five miles away, on Longboat Key, Hermine Bagwell was also having problems with sleep. All her Ambien was missing and tonight she really needed it. The party had gone beautifully, so beautifully that now she was "wired." She needed something to bring her down from the high.
Now she'd be up for hours. And there were so many servants and masseuses and personal shoppers going through her house that she had no idea who to accuse first. Damn! You're so rich and you can't even fall asleep. What was the point?
Her glance fell on the latest issue of SARASOTA Magazine and she picked it up. There was an article by that Mr. Chatterbox guy. It was called Eight Great Meals for under Eight Dollars.
It was at Meal Number Three-a Mexican taco stand on 301 -that she first began to notice it. She was falling asleep. Reading this Chatterbox guy-it really put you out like a light. That was a skill in itself. A thought began to form. Something about the next time she had a party. But before it could impress itself on her brain she was fast asleep, unaware that dawn was breaking in the east. (Her bedroom faced west, as did the bedroom of anybody important in Sarasota.)
Another night was fading into tomorrow.