John was always the last man standing at any party, so it was strange and sad to see him just sitting there with his drink in his hand, the drink Leo, as his oldest friend, had carefully poured for him. Still, John had had a hell of a week, so it wasn’t reasonable to expect him to stand, under the circumstances. But no one loved a party more than John, circumstances be damned; so we were all here to see that he got one that would go down in the annals. By dawn anyone who could remember it at all would never forget. We sent his wife off with a fifth to share with herself. Delightful lady, she loved John but she loved drink too; and she knew he would want one last night with the boys.
So John sat with us, as always the center of attention. His hair was combed back from his forehead in a glorious silver sweep, and that perfect profile with its proud nose and aristocratic chin seemed to take over the room. He was in his best clothes, which was saying something: dark lapels lying perfectly flat over a crisp white shirt, tie knotted so perfectly the whole thing looked like a sculpture. Still, as Anthony said, John would be handsome in a gunnysack.
The toasts were Leo’s idea. He raised his glass and said, “John, you’ve been a bad husband—”
“Three times,” interjected Edgar.
“Four if you count the annulment,” said Anthony.
“—and a terrible father,” continued Leo. “All your children that we know of would agree. But you were brilliant on the boards, you old bastard, and oh what a friend to us all! Cheers.” We all drained our glasses and refilled them as John smiled his knowing smile.
“How did you two meet?” asked Anthony.
“We never met,” roared Leo. “We always knew each other. Good God, man, we were delinquents together and stood side by side as we grew into reprobates.” He gestured to John, who seemed to have a glint in his eye. “The amount of depravity I would have missed out on without you, John. I shudder to think.”
“My turn,” said Edgar. He stood, facing forty years of friendship and understanding so tight it bordered on fusion. “My first introduction to John was as a boy. I’m not ashamed to say he was older—much older.” He grinned. “I remember watching him stagger along the beach at Cohasset at midnight, drunk as a lord, reciting entire Shakespeare plays by heart.” He took a sip. “It was also my introduction to Shakespeare. John assaulted the Bard’s verse like a wolf on the fold.”
“And his diction was gleaming in purple and gold,” said Leo. “Hear! Hear!” He lifted his glass and we showed our love as only a troupe of potted thespians can.
“He had that lovely summer place in Cohasset,” said Leo.
“Cirrhosis by the Sea,” said Anthony. “It’s where he rolled nightly.” He passed Leo the bottle.
“I see you’re still working on yours,” said Leo to John. True enough, John’s drink was untouched. It wasn’t like him not to be leading the charge, but we understood.
“Years later we met doing Summer Rep,” said Edgar. “He played Othello to my Iago, and the next night we’d switch and he’d be Iago to my Moor. What a privilege, my friends, what a privilege.”
John just smiled as whiskey-colored memories crowded the air with their stink and joy. We all had another one. As Leo said, it wouldn’t keep. Finally Anthony wobbled to his feet, amber liquid sloshing as he gestured with both hands.
“I met John through films,” he said. “His first role was my first too, but of course he’d been in theatre for years. I’m proud to say he played the part of my mentor onscreen and off.”
“Watch it, you damned troglodyte,” bellowed Leo as some of Anthony’s drink slapped onto the table from above.
“Go trog yourself,” said Anthony. “We’re here for John. Drink!” So we did.
We kept it up till the black and grained spots of midnight had given way to the blue grit of dawn.
“Shall we lay him down again?” said Anthony.
“Can’t,” said Leo, after trying. “Rigor’s set in.”
Edgar pried the drink from John’s stiff fingers. The Scotch splashed onto John’s immaculate cuff. “Damnit. You’re right.”
Leo laughed. “They’ll have to bury the bastard sitting up.”
“With a drink in his hand,” said Anthony. “Quick, refill it.” So Edgar put the glass back and Leo gave John his second drink of the night and Anthony asked him if he wanted ice with it.
As if we all didn’t know perfectly well John took his Scotch neat.
◊ ◊ ◊
Tilia Klebenov Jacobs
Tilia Klebenov Jacobs is a graduate of Oberlin College and Harvard Divinity School. When Tilia is not writing she is teaching (aka “getting paid for bossing people around”). She has taught middle school, high school, and college; currently she teaches writing classes for prison inmates, and is a judge in the Soul-Making Keats Literary Competition in San Francisco. She is the author of Wrong Place, Wrong Time and Second Helpings at the Serve You Right Café. Her nonfiction has appeared in the anthologies The Chalk Circle and Phoenix Rising, and her fiction has been published by The Flash Fiction Press. Tilia lives near Boston with her husband, two children, and a pleasantly neurotic standard poodle. www.tiliaklebenovjacobs.com
17 thoughts on “Infinite Jest”
Intelligent, well-written, and darkly hilarious. I enjoyed every word. (The author must’ve partied with actors. This is exactly how they sound!)
Mike, you flatter me! I actually haven’t partied with actors, but thanks for letting me know I got it right. 😀
Ha! This reads like delicious dark chocolate! Loved every word.
High praise (and I speak as one who loves dark chocolate)! Thanks.
I kind of saw that coming, but still enjoyed it because of the writing and dialogue. Nicely done.
Sometimes people see the end coming…glad you enjoyed it!
I agree with David. Am wondering about the choice of title. I was expecting some fan fiction a la David Foster Wallace whose most famous novel bears that name. But a fun oiece nonetheless.
Good question! “Infinite jest” is a quote from Hamlet, and of course John is a Shakespearean actor. It also refers obliquely to the fact that he’s dead–gone on to infinity–and that his friends are enjoying a great jest at the same time.
And Hamlet’s elegy to Yorick?
You got it!
I should have expected the ending, but, Sixth Sense like, I got almost to the end before it became clear and then I had to go back to see all of the clues. To John (and his creator)!
(And some say short stories are a dead form. Perish the thought!)
So glad you liked it!
Well done in many ways, but the ending was predictable, especially given the title and the “circumstances”. AGB
I enjoyed this – however ‘when John smiled his knowing smile’ I thought I was wrong in thinking he was dead. Then you tell me he was dead.
Glad you enjoyed it!