Mrs. Dupont twirls in front of the mirror, gold dress glittering like the chandelier will at tonight’s soiree. She reckons she’ll be buried in this dress by next year’s party. Though cakey makeup may hide her wrinkles, it won’t fool Father Time, no sirree. After a couple spritzes of sticky hairspray, smelling like perfume sprayed on bleach, she climbs down the stairs, which creak under her weight.
Nigel don’t even look up from his kneeled position, straightening Eli’s bowtie, his expression like a bomb disabler in an action flick. “You look beautiful, Ma.”
Mrs. Dupont notes Nigel’s graying sideburns and the new wrinkles he’s gotten this year. Damn, he’s getting old, she thinks. Maria walks in, still pretty as the day Nigel brought her home, except now she’s got smile lines, which somehow add to her charm. She fixes Eli’s tie with ease and kisses her husband on the cheek. In her prime, Mrs. Dupont could charm the dew right off the honeysuckle. Yessir, everyone either wanted to be her or date her. Mrs. Dupont resists the urge to check her makeup, taking comfort in the fact that one day Maria will be as old and saggy as her.
The family squeezes into Nigel’s dinged-up truck, which starts after several tries turning the key and wiggling the wheel. They inch along, slower than molasses on January morning, until they reach the highway where everyone moves like it’s zero Kelvin. As she gazes out the window at the car lights below, Mrs. Dupont is reminded of candlelight, which would be beautiful if not for the honking and Nigel cursing the DMV, DOT, President, and at times even God Himself for not adding lanes to this road. Maria reminds him it’s almost dead every other day.
He acquiesces under his breath, placing a hand on Maria’s. “Truth be told, I’d sit in traffic a hundred hours if it meant you’d get the mark.”
At the mention of the mark, Mrs. Dupont grimaces. She hoped to avoid the word until the party, where old folks act like they ain’t scared of dying or dreading the pitying glances anyone with a black mark gets. But Maria wants the red mark again, since she and Nigel always dreamed of a big family. Nothing like when Mrs. Dupont got the red mark, back before she was Mrs. Dupont. Strangers congratulated her at the grocery store, but without a husband, the red mark was almost terrifying as the black one. For all she knew, she could’ve gotten pregnant from a sleezy boyfriend who would leave the minute he found out, but she found Gerry, who passed ten years ago.
After parking the truck, they kiss Eli goodbye before he runs to the giant playground. The couple and Mrs. Dupont enter the soiree decorated with a classy black and gold theme. Waiters carry hors d’oeuvres on platters as a local jazz band plays. Hand in hand, Nigel and Maria leave for the dance floor. A familiar voice calls for Mrs. Dupont from across the hall. Anna Sue waddles over in a dress, Mrs. Dupont finds much too tight for someone her age and size. The exertion gives her a sweaty sheen, reminding Mrs. Dupont of a pig in heat.
“Some shindig, ain’t it?” Anna Sue asks, still huffing and puffing.
On any other day Mrs. Dupont would pretend she didn’t hear, but she’d rather not be alone on New Year’s Eve. “Better than last years, I reckon.”
“I remember last year you pitched a hissy fit, sayin you wouldn’t have such a party be your last.” Anna Sue snorts.
Tucking a stray hair behind her ear, Mrs. Dupont asks, “Where your chillens at?”
“They heard couples that dance all night on New Year’s Eve are more likely to get pregnant.”
“Anyone believes that is dumb as dirt, bless their hearts.” After a long pause, she continues. “Maybe that’s why Nigel’s on the dance floor, boy can’t dance to save his life.”
“Didn’t he take cotillion with Opal’s daughter?”
“Heard she named her child Sky. Who does that? Nowadays people name chillens all kinds of stupid shit, like Apple and Dusty and Blue.”
“Dusty’s not a bad name for a boy...”
“It ain’t for a boy,” Anna Sue’s mouth forms a perfect ‘o’. “Poor girl’s gonna be the laughingstock of her class.”
With a wave which the ladies return, Steve hobbles past, shaking like a porcelain shop in an earthquake. Anna Sue whispers, “Coulda sworn he died last May.”
“At this rate he’ll outlive us all.”
Gretta walks up, wig slightly askew. Mrs. Dupont don’t know why she wears it, when everyone knows she’s not a natural ginger. “Enjoyin the gala, ladies?”
“Much as we can at our age.” Anna Sue replies, creating a beat of awkward silence.
Clearing her throat, Gretta tries to salvage the conversation. “The young’uns seem to be having a ball. I’d be out there too, but Herb hurt his back liftin the couch all by hisself, bless him.”
“Last time I danced was the twentieth century,” Anna Sue laughs, then with a wistful expression continues. “New Year’s Eve was so fun when we thought we were invincible.”
After a couple minutes of polite conversation, Gretta leaves for the powder room. Still sweaty as a sinner in church, Anna Sue grabs Mrs. Dupont’s hand. The ladies high tail it out of there before Gretta returns.
Applause draws their attention to the stage where Mayor Raymond starts the midnight countdown. Everyone joins.
As Anna Sue hugs Mrs. Dupont tight, she whispers in her ear. “I’m glad I could spend what may be my last New Year’s Eve with my best friend.” She pulls away, misty-eyed before leaving to find her family. When Mrs. Dupont finds Nigel and Maria, they all hold hands as if that would create a bond not even God would dare break. Maria squeezes Mrs. Dupont’s hand with a smile, unintentionally making her regret her jealousy. Mrs. Dupont turns her gaze to the giant clock as it strikes midnight.
Everyone stares at their wrists, where the mark would appear. Mrs. Dupont almost collapses in relief at her unmarked wrist. When she looks up, she sees Nigel’s eyes glued to Maria’s wrist in horror.