Though Roger despised social gatherings organized by others, he enjoyed organizing his own, which were almost always meals, usually dinners, shared with a small select group of individuals; so I was not surprised when the call came from Roger inviting me to dinner the following Saturday evening:
"I think you'll enjoy it, Mark. I've asked Margo Sawyer, Fanz Wolfe, Peter Sterling, Ned Carpenter, Ruth Sparberger, and a couple you do not know but I'm sure you've heard of, Joel and Rena Rice. I expect Sally Westfield will also drop in."
I certainly hoped so, I thought to myself. Unpredictable is an understatement when describing the gorgeous Sally Westfield, which is why Roger only, "expected," her. One could never be sure what she would do.
I always wondered how she had become so successful. She was certainly that if owning billions of dollars worth of real estate, and running hundreds of very profitable hotels, casinos, and resorts worldwide is success.
Roger was right that I had never met the Rices, but certainly knew who they were; very wealthy Texas oil and ranch folks. Roger had apparently worked with Joel some years earlier, and spoke frequently about the Rices and some adventures they had shared. If Roger had any friends, in the usual sense, Joel and Rena were it.
I knew Ruth Sparberger too. Such a delightful person. She simply sparkled with childish enthusiasm for life, whose wonderful sense of whim and fanciful humor was always so refreshing. If they did not know, no one would guess from her manner or appearance that she was a billionaire. Her wealth came from three series of very successful children's books—very controversial children's books full of dangerous adventures of children doing everything modern society deplored, but children naturally adored.
I've never understood why Roger invited Ned Carpenter to his little get togethers. Carpenter is a gangster who makes no bones about his profession. I have to admit he is a charming individual. You could not be with him for five minutes without smiling. He tells the most outrageous stories.
I've met Peter Sterling before, but cannot say I know him. Nobody knows Peter Sterling. He has written more questionable stories than a New York Times columnist. His Diet of Apes is perhaps one of the most famous of his hoaxes, at least that he admits. No one is quite sure whether his Wannabe Bible was serious or not. As outrageous as it is, he has always maintained that those who want to have a limb or two hacked off, or some other part of their body mutilated, were perfectly normal and that wannabeism ought to be promoted in the schools. The book is full of, "documented psychological evidence."
The flamboyant Fanz Wolfe I do know. Everything about him is outrageous, from his social commentary to his dress. Everybody hated him but everybody read him. If you haven't been misinterpreted by Franz, you are a nobody.
Everybody knows Margo Sawyer. She says so herself. "But most would rather not," she would explain. She's a poet, columnist, novelist, and critic; always a critic, acerbic, and shocking.
I knew the Rices had arrived as soon as Andrew had opened the door, because the air was filled with the heavenly fragrance of Joel Rice's perennial cigar.
"Do come in Mr. Halpern. Roger is waiting for you in parlor. Right this way sir."
"I know the way, thank you, Andrew. I'd rather not be announced."
All the other guests, except Ned Carpenter and Sally Westfield, had already arrived and were scattered around the room. Franz Wolfe was speaking to Margo Sawyer, looking lovely as always, in a purple and rose blouse, darker rose slacks, and a very feminine looking dusty rose baseball-style hat, from which her short straight black hair fell.
"Well love, what have you been working on?" Franz was asking her.
"Making enemies, Franz. How am I doing with you."
"Surely you don't think I'm a potential enemy do you?"
"No, you couldn't be. You're in love with me. Why else would you look so helpless and odd."
"Of course I love you. Why else would I look so helpless and odd? Well helpless, anyway. I always look odd, love."
Odd he did look, and always too. Franz had never heard of anyone's idea of appropriate dress. His style, in all things, was his own.
He was wearing very full nickers, which he must have had made, because I'm sure they haven't been sold anywhere for years, except perhaps in the UK. A huge floppy bow tie overlapped the lapels of the tweed jacket with elbow patches and epaulets.
"The trouble with a reputation," Margo was saying, "is it's so hard to live up to. The rumors that I've had lots of affairs are all true, but none of them were consummated. Sigh! They were all annulled."
"Was your marriage annulled too, Margo?" Franz asked.
"Marriage? Oh, yes, I was married once, wasn't I. It didn't work. One of us needed to be a man. I've given up finding one. They're all taken, or have become something else."
I had not noticed that Roger, who had been standing with the Rices, had come across the room.
"There are still a few real men, Margo. Perhaps you're not looking hard enough." Roger remarked.
"Oh sure, Roger. You're a real man, but you're one of the taken ones. All the real men are."
"I'm sure I was not the only one surprised by that. Roger taken? Roger was single, wasn't he? Did Margo know something I didn't?
At that point, Ned Carpenter arrived and was announced by Andrew. Though I'm sure it was unintentional, his entrance did seem a bit dramatic.
"Thank you," he said to Andrew after being announced.
Then to everyone at large, "Sorry to be late. Last minute business."
"Wonder who was killed," I heard Peter Sterling mumble to someone, I think Ruth Sparberger, who was obviously suppressing a giggle.
Ned went quietly around the room quitely speaking to the women and shaking hands of the men. He graciously bowed to Mrs. Rice, who smiled sincerely. He began talking with the Rices, but I could not hear what they were talking about, though their conversation was animated and punctuated with laughter.
Franz and Margo had walked off somewhere, probably in search of a drink. In spite of their constant sparring, everyone knew they adored each other.
I walked over to where Peter Sterling and Ruth Sparberger were talking, and just caught the last thing Peter was saying:
"We both write the same kinds of stories, Ruth, though mine are not as imaginative or creative as yours. Children read and love your fantasies, but are never fooled into believing they are really true. Gullible adults read my fantasies, and swallow them whole."
"Excuse me," I interrupted, "but I believe all of Ruth's stories, because they are true, but I have never believed one of yours, Peter."
"That's because you're still a child, Mark. My stories are written only for sophisticated adults with academic credulity."
"Well I'm certainly not one of those," Peter, "so I'll take that as a compliment. For the record, I think your work is quite imaginative, and for those of us who do not believe a word you write, it is very entertaining."
Peter acknowledged my comment with a nod.
"It was meant as a compliment, Mark. And, by the way, I read almost all your articles, and always believe them, because I know you tell the truth. Alas, it's not at all entertaining. Nobody likes it."
Well he's exactly right about that, I thought to myself. Then turned to Ruth.
"I was quite serious, by the way, when I said everything you write is true. I've read it all and there is not a false note in anything you've written. Of course, I do not mean the stories are true, or the fantasy itself. But the love of life, the danger and adventure of it, the strength and bravery of the heroes, the portrayal of good and evil and the triumph of the good are all true."
It was one of the few times I'd seen Ruth Sparberger look so serious.
"Why Mark, you are marvelously discerning. I wish you could have been my agent when I was first trying to break into the market. They and all the publishers kept telling me my work would never sell, because the stories were too unbelievably romantic. Of course they are, which is why children and a few perceptive adults love it, and all other adults hate it. Thank you!
I felt a little embarrassed. I hadn't meant to sound gushy. I was actually relieved when Andrew came into the room to announce Dinner was about to be served and for us all to find our seats in the Dining room.
A brief digression:
"Roger," I once asked him, "why do you surround yourself with these misfits?"
"Mark, the most nearly human beings on this planet are always exceptional, and the exceptional never fit in. The common human being on this planet is superstitious, ignorant, paranoid, and hopeless. Just a little real rationality makes one a misfit."
Everyone headed for the dining room and dinner, which I'll tell you about next time.
—Mark Halpern (01/31/12)