The New Year’s Eve we won't forget
The house sheltered one of Montana’s few private indoor pools, which would later be drained by the city planner for New Orleans. By Bill Vaughn
AT NOON IT STARTED TO SNOW. By the time we got to the bottom of the hill at seven that evening the road had drifted so deep we decided to park our little orange Volvo on the shoulder and walk the last mile. Halfway to the house the LSD took hold. The three of us started laughing so hard we had to hold hands to keep from crashing on the ice. Below us, in Missoula’s Valley of the Liberals, the lights glittered and twinkled and their colors shifted from ultra-violet to infra-red and back again. The astringent mountain air of western Montana hummed and hissed.
And then we were inside the warm orange glow of the big, rambling house, tossing our heavy coats and scarves and watch caps onto a pile and greeting people as if they were long-lost relatives. The hostess gave us martinis. The beginning of our New Year’s Eve celebration—and that of my thirty-fifth birthday—had begun most agreeably. As our long night’s journey turned into day it would only get better.
Soon, we were all singing along as a big brassy blonde led the crowd of fifty in a dinner-theatre rendition of Oklahoma while a skinny piano player struggled to keep up. Then we sang songs from The King I and South Pacific and finally Sam Cooke’s A Wonderful World:
Don’t know much about geography, don’t know much trigonometry
Don’t know much about algebra, don’t know what a slide rule is for
But I do know one and one is two
And if this one could be with you
What a wonderful, wonderful world.
Then we got more drinks and watched a woman we knew with deliciously perfect breasts play naked volleyball in the indoor pool with her husband and some other delectable girls and some guys Kitty allowed were not painful to watch. We considered jumping in ourselves, but got sidetracked by the swirl of conversation that only began to wane around 2 am.
Meanwhile, Victor—still years away from getting married and fathering two terrific kids—had hooked up with a reporter for the local newspaper and wandered over to tell me that he was going home with her.
“Okay,” I said, “how are you feeling?”
“Well, it’s something, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” I nodded. “It is. You have our phone number.”
Somehow, Kitty and I managed to make our way back down the hill in the first hours of the new year. And we managed to drive back home to our bungalow next to Bonner Park. We were so stoned we were sober. Or so we thought.
Too wired to sleep, we sat in bed talking as a false dawn glowed against the bedroom window. At daybreak the front door opened. And there was Victor. He sat on our bed, eyes wide open, and shook his head. Had his night with the reporter actually happened? Or had he hallucinated the whole thing?
“Well, tell us what you think happened,” Kitty said.
“We started fooling around,” Victor said. “Then we went into her bedroom and fooled around some more. We started taking off our clothes. But all of a sudden she got up and went into the bathroom. When she came back she was wearing rubber gloves.”
“What next?” I asked.
Victor shook his head. “I’m not sure.”
FIVE YEARS LATER, in 1988, Kitty and I went back up to the house on the hill to attend a fund-raiser for Frank Morrison, a liberal Democrat who would finish second behind Tom Judge in Montana’s six-way gubernatorial primary. Kitty and I weren’t interested in electoral politics, and weren’t even registered to vote. But we wanted to see the house again.
Alas, the era of the fabulous New Years parties had ended. Richard Ford, the novelist, and his wife, Kristina, had bought the place and remodeled it. The huge indoor pool had been replaced by a huge indoor conversation pit. Kristina, who was Missoula’s city planner, had held a similar post in New Orleans, her home town, and may have developed as a child an aversion to large bodies of water that smelled like chemicals. (She would return to the Crescent City in 1992 and serve as city planner again until 2000, when Mayor Ray Nagin, whose hotel-and-casino plans for New Orleans she publicly despises, declined to extend her contract.)
While Morrison spoke about the need to raise taxes I was thinking about a dinner party hosted by the Fords attended by a mystery writer we know. The centerpiece on the big table, our friend told us, was a bowl of pheasant plumage, as radiantly colorful as a bouquet of roses. (Richard is an avid hunter who likes to be photographed in the celebrity magazines with his bird dogs. “When I go into the woods,” he once boasted, “something’s going to die.”)
Our mystery writer friend thought he was hallucinating when, while the entree was being served, the feathers began moving. And then he realized that the feathers were moving because they were infested with maggots.
Just as Morrison ended his speech I started laughing at this image, then checked myself when Kitty gouged me with an elbow. People turned to stare. Suddenly, a woman fell into the conversation pit. But she landed feet-first on a couch, and bounced neatly to the floor. She didn’t even lose her grip on the glass of chardonnay clutched in her hand.