Sifting through the bills and unsolicited ephemera of his mail one Saturday afternoon, Pete made an unusual discovery. It was a light blue envelope with no return address and his own written on dark blue ballpoint in idiosyncratic cursive.
Pete tossed the less intriguing mail onto his kitchen table while handling the light blue envelope with the utmost delicacy. It was of a shape and smoothness not unlike holiday greeting cards that may or may not contain checks from relatives, though no such relatives existed for him anymore, and no such holidays were on the horizon. He carefully opened the envelope revealing a pink card of thick mohawk paper; as he removed the card, he felt the elegant print work on his fingertips.
“You are invited …” Pete read aloud, “to a celebration taking place on Saturday June 14th, beginning at 7:00 PM and ending by ?.”
Pete took out his phone to confirm that that was today’s date. Normally he did not like events being sprung on him on such short notice, but it was a lazy, sunny Saturday that seemed wasted lying around the house. He looked back at the card for the remaining details.
“Please join us at 2748 Foster Avenue. You are encouraged to bring refreshments. The party is luau-themed.”
The address was nearby, which wasn’t a problem, though the fact that he did not know anyone who lived there was more puzzling. Maybe, he thought to himself, it is someone who just moved in and wants to meet the neighbors. The prospect of meeting new people in this otherwise dead-end town delighted him. What harm could it be? he thought. And so he resolved to drop what little he had planned and attend the party.
Pete immediately made preparations, shedding his sweatpants and Jets t-shirt like snakeskin and sifting through his ramshackle clothes drawers. Luau-theme was a tough one. He had nothing Hawaiian or vaguely tropical. He knew if he dug deep enough under the geological crusts of his wardrobe, he’d find a few PacSun shirts from college that still more or less fit him.
Showered and freshly Axed, he stood before the bathroom mirror in a faded yellow shirt with his cargo shorts and flip-flops safely obscured. He practiced the smile he was hoping to display upon his arrival. Theme parties were never his cup of tea. He could understand their appeal in the abstract, but he never felt like himself, and that that seemed like the point made him uneasy and more introverted than he otherwise would have been. He certainly did not feel more youthful in the now snugly fitting shirt that accentuated his lapsing metabolism.
Not that these dreary inklings affected his resolve. He flipped on a pair of gas station aviators from spring break 2013 and put on a plaid-patterned short-sleeve button down. Just as he left, he remembered he had a shell necklace from about the same time. It seemed excessive so he stored it in one of his cargo pockets and headed to the liquor store.
Walking through the dense forestry of unrefrigerated 24- and 30-packs, Pete was in search of something that would stand out from the rest. A luau-themed party conjured an image of more Coronas and Land Sharks than any house could abide, to say nothing of the lime-flavored abominations perpetuating themselves daily in his culture. Pete considered getting wine coolers or even Zima, if possible. He imagined how amusing this would be to the party’s hosts and using the in-joke as a foundation for a lasting connection. Pete was on the verge of consulting an employee before something in a far-off corner caught his eye.
Sitting crookedly atop a random assortment of beers was a 24-pack that he’d never seen before in this or any store. The packaging was white with an attractive redhead in a vintage polka dot swimsuit holding a frosty mug next to the word “BEER” in bold red letters. That was it. The combined kitsch and obscurity made him think it was some limited edition of a forgotten iconic beer of a midsized city. The cashier up front stared at the case, arching his eyebrow as he scanned the barcode.
“Really? For a 24-pack?”
“Must be your lucky day.”
Pete secured the beer in his backseat. After closing the door, he paused and looked back. He could have sworn the woman on the package had winked at him. He chuckled to himself and headed off to the house.
It was almost five after seven when Pete turned onto Foster Avenue, one of those streets with closely set homes largely unchanged from the postwar era or earlier. He did not see a line of cars along the curb; indeed, the neighborhood seemed rather quiet. Pete, by his standards and evidently everyone else’s, was still early. But looking at 2748 from his parking space across the street, it too did not seem very festive. Walking to the house he could not detect noise, barbecue, or tiki torches. It might be awkward at first, he thought, but he could use the time to get to know the hosts.
With the beer under his left arm, Pete consulted the address on the invitation to confirm he had the information correct. He rang the doorbell twice at what he thought were respectful intervals. The slow thuds of footsteps from behind the door were revealed to be of a lanky man between middle- and retirement age in a suit and tie, with a facial expression in the penultimate stage of petrification.
“Can I help you?” the man asked in a low, smoky drone.
“Yes, I’m here for the party,” Pete said, affecting his smile that felt more and more like a grimace the longer he held it.
“Party?” the man looked at him quizzically, “there must be some mistake, there’s no party here. It’s just me and my wife.”
“We were just watching Blue Bloods. We record it every week and watch it after dinner the day after.”
“I see,” Pete looked around nervously. “Is this not 2748 Foster?”
“Oh, well the invitation said this exact address.”
“Let me see it.”
Pete handed over the invitation and the man inspected it like a compromising photograph of an enemy.
“Is this a joke? I don’t take kindly to jokes. Not ever, no less on Blue Bloods night.”
“I don’t understand.”
The man handed back the invitation. “It says 16 Sycamore Place, a town over. What’s the big idea?”
Pete re-re-inspected the invitation only to confirm what the man had said: the address was not the one from when he first opened it. His grimace collapsed.
“Are you okay, son?”
Pete looked at the generic ideal of adult authority blankly.
“Yeah … sorry to bother. I’ll go now.”
Pete began to turn away from the house until the man touched his forearm lightly.
“Hold on friend,” the man said in a more soothing cadence, “I think you’re forgetting something.”
The man said nothing, but went to the case of beer, carefully opened it halfway and removed a can.
“For my troubles.”
As Pete walked back to his car, he heard the man crack open the can and take a long sip. As he was driving away, he could have sworn he heard a wolf howling from that same location.
Pete thought little of the amorphous print job and more of his fashionable lateness growing more unfashionable by the minute. There was a threshold of delayed arrival where attendance seemed less worth it the further past it you got. You are behind on several layers of conversation. Bonds of the night had already been forged, there is no time to insinuate yourself into any of them let alone to start a new one, you are trying fruitlessly to play catch-up with the best jokes and stories of the night. Only Pete’s dogged commitment kept him going.
Aside from being a one-story ranch home, 16 Sycamore seemed just as subdued as 2748 Foster. It took only one ring of the doorbell before a woman in her 40s wearing curlers in her hair, a pink lace nightgown, and streaked mascara burst from behind the door.
She spoke only in sobs and seemed barely able to recognize Pete as anything more than some vague combination of material matter. She nevertheless lunged at him with such force as to push him down onto the front lawn. A can of the beer flew out from the case, the woman stumbled to the ground and picked it up before running back into the house. Pete sat there stunned for a few more seconds. Walking back to the car he re-re-re-inspected the invitation to see yet another address on the other side of town. Getting into his car, he heard a panther’s roar coming from the house.
As the night went on, the pattern made itself more apparent. The invitation took Pete to new destinations all over the county. In each case the occupants of these destinations were not especially pleased to see him, though they were more interested in his contraband, which became lighter with each stop. Sometimes the occupants were glum, silent, and remote—a bit off in their ways.
One man in a condo complex greeted Pete with flame-like white mutton chops, a smoking jacket, silk pajama pants, and a monocle. He rifled a little too long into the case, as if looking for a special can just for himself. Pete caught the most complete glimpse of any destination thus far. He saw no furniture, just a folding chair and a poker table with some noodles on a paper plate, but no utensils. Then, a robotic poodle backflipped into the center of the corridor, its yaps echoing down to the entrance.
“Wanda,” the man said inspecting his selection with a cool avarice, “shut up.” He slammed the door in Pete’s face. Pete waited for what was, he thought, a hyena’s cackle.
Some were more expressive. At a duplex, two women of identical old age and diminutive height, in identical green Adidas tracksuits and shell-toes, came out of both doors and spent several minutes doing cartwheels and somersaults in front of Pete before each taking a can and slinking back through the doors. Bears growled.
The 24-pack dwindled to the last few cans and Pete lost all track of time and space in his sudden quest to give his supply away. The night took on an arbitrary elasticity, the hours simply had no meaning to him. The road unraveled before him like a black Fruit Roll-Up.
Pete did manage to find a party. He was met at the door of a modern, square-shaped mansion by a girthy man in a kimono and nothing else. Sun Ra blared behind him. As the man took several cans, Pete tried to peer behind him at the party. The man stopped him.
“Your task is through here.” He shut the door.
The party quickly went silent, and no sounds, animal or otherwise, could be heard, which just unsettled Pete more.
Pete looked warily at the invitation again. By this point it seemed cheapy and moist. It had a new directive: mile mark 45 on the westbound interstate. Pete sighed and started his car.
Pete’s car ran out of gas five miles from the location, leaving him to walk the near-empty moonlit highway. When he reached the mile mark he stood in front of an empty field once used for crops. He crossed over the rail, walked to a small indentation of dirt, and sat in the middle of it. The ground was cool, not uncomfortable. The full moon illuminated the field in a spectral blue. He heard only the buzzing of mosquitoes flying into his ears and mouth without biting him.
Pete’s phone had died some time earlier, but he hazarded it was probably two in the morning. He speculated how his night would have gone if the invitation had not been so deceptive. Perhaps he would still be playing Kan Jam in the backyard with some straggling, drunk-but-by-no-means-too-drunk single mom or pair of single moms. He opted not to dwell on an obvious fantasy. Instead he went into his cargo shorts pocket and took out the shell necklace. He stared at it trying to remember under what circumstances he got it, as it seemed so foreign to him now—probably some chick. Nevertheless, he put it around his neck. It fit better than the PacSun shirt.
He looked into the case and there was one can of beer left. “Don’t mind if I do,” he said to himself. He cracked open the warm can and chugged half the contents in under 30 seconds. The taste was unremarkable, like any PBR knock-off. The body was not so much heavy as swampy from sitting in his backseat for most of the night. Pete did not complain; he tilted back onto the ground and looked up at the moon and stars. He sipped the can slowly now, and in the process the celestial ornaments looked as if they were moving—rotating like lights over a crib. A music rose from the trees on the other side of the road. Soft luau music, the kind in 1960s beach movies where star-crossed thirty-somethings who had been teen lovers—the goodie two-shoes honors student and the bad boy surfer—reconciled at sunset. The invitation was truthful after all. The celebration was not as he envisioned it, but Pete took what he could get at this point. He breathed in the warm night air and finished his beer.
When he crushed the empty can and tossed it aside, the music and the rotating lights stopped abruptly. Before Pete could take stock of what was happening, something tightened over his throat—the shell necklace. He tried to take it off, but it resisted, intent, it seemed, on strangling him. Or worse. He stood up to fight it back, but the more he struggled the tighter it got. Pete could not breathe; his face was turning blue. The pressure intensified before his head ruptured. His body fell like a sack of potatoes, the shell necklace still secure on his neck.
The county police officer flagged down the pick-up truck at mile mark 45 the next morning. The driver, a man in jeans, work boots, and a ratty Teamsters t-shirt greeted him in front of the field.
“Sorry to bring you out so early,” the police officer said. “But I figured you might know what this was about.”
The pick-up truck driver paused and looked into the field. “I guess that explains the commotion.”
“That it does. I’m on a 14-hour shift now. I swear this happens earlier and earlier every year.”
“Well don’t worry yourself about this, you go get some breakfast and we’ll set this right.” The driver turned to his truck. “Boys!”
Two muscular college-aged men wearing sleeveless Drowning Pool and Archers of Loaf shirts stumbled out of the car.
“Go on and take care of that over there.”
“Can’t just one of us do it?” the man in the Archers of Loaf shirt whined.
“Just do as I say. We got a delivery to make.”
The two men climbed the rail. They stumbled over to the indentation, which boasted a newly filled 24-pack of BEER at its center. Each took one end of the case like it was a biblical artifact and placed it in the back of the truck.
By afternoon, the case was back atop a crooked pile of assorted beers.