Short Story The Festivities of Dying
An old man walking by says, “When you laugh at someone’s pain, you’re dying inside,” and the model calls back, “No one’s in pain here, grandpa.”
Midnight on Sunset Boulevard, the smug eyes of Bel Air on the luminous sky and the Hollywood sign, and latent summer heat rolling down the hills like shit.
You are alone among the eyeless. Watch closely.
The gilded ends of velvet stanchions, rope velour to match the red carpet laid on asphalt for miles, you’d think, and cop cars pivoting traffic since 5 a.m., black and white limos doubling down the side streets now, flashing lights of silver and gold from spotlights of unknown heights, camera flashes sharper than classy perfume and hastily rolled joints, the jittery monologues of naive postgrads: “Reporting live from LA, we’re just minutes away from this special, tragic event.”
Celebrity interviews, tear-proof mascara for laughing too hard, and a line of bodies to a newly built ballroom ahead, the way for which was plowed by demolition crews sinking a century-old theater.
You’re almost there. You can hardly hold still.
The easel-poised posters on either side of the doors display a shot from the Socialite’s most recent photo shoot with Vogue , and watermarked in Comic Sans below her sneer, “Backstage Passes $300,” and in italics, “Have the Time of Your Life by Celebrating Hers.” Warnings beneath read, “No Weeping Allowed,” and “Black Clothing Strictly Prohibited.” Repeated around the border in bold, “DEATH OF A SOCIALITE.”
The bouncer is filtering out nondesigner outfits and unfortunate skincare routines, his beady eyes on the search for press passes or tips from Benjamin Franklin. As you pass B-list social media influencers partying in denial, e-boys on statewide tours, YouTube vloggers, and TikTok stars pressing record, your hunched shoulders in their backgrounds vanish into the venue.
Inside, the red carpet cuts through the dance floor until it reaches center stage, where they’re displaying the casket. A cape of roses wraps around it, and multicolored flares burn at each end. There’s no body inside; the Family propped her in the photo booth, and they congregate past the bar and lounge to your left, between the chocolate fountains, embracing the singers and actresses who ever paid the Socialite for a good public feud.
Martinis and beer ensnare the high-ceilinged atmosphere, and clouds of smoke laced with formaldehyde surround you. The disco ball descends, and “Celebration” plays out in delirious trap distortion through mammoth speakers while strippers climb ivory-painted poles.
The funeral’s in full swing.
“Gatsby, eat your heart out!” a daytime talk show host calls from behind, and you sidestep a wave of guests pouring past. Most go first to the Family’s cosmetics launch for the new fall collection, featuring the limited-edition Grief palette.
Gossip peppers the air. “I heard she injected her breasts with concrete . . . tore through her lungs during sex . . . the video’s everywhere . . . no, no, she fell off the Golden Gate . . . running from paparazzi . . . like Princess Diana, but waaay more pathetic.”
A sobering reproach settles the discourse. “We don’t need to turn fame into shame.”
“But that’s the name of the game!”
The voices follow you, even in the back corner where merchandise is sold on long tables. Chocolate bars with her face on the wrapper, shirts that promise “Deader Than Ever,” and PopSockets flaunting glitter crossbones big enough for the iPhone XXX.
The saleswoman says, “It’s just like her wedding last year, except you can’t divorce the grim reaper after eight months.”
Next to you, a runway model purrs, “She’s gone for good. Gonna rot down to rivers of Botox and radioactive fingernails. And eventually her family’s ghosts will spend eternity reciting lines from that goddamn reality TV show of theirs.” The women cackle.
An old man walking by says, “When you laugh at someone’s pain, you’re dying inside,” and the model calls back, “No one’s in pain here, grandpa,” but he has vanished into the mob, and you wonder if he was real or just a manifestation of yearning.
A white projector screen comes down the back wall. You shuffle toward the center of the ballroom. A handsome man sees you frowning. “It’s not as cruel as you think. It’s a wise thing, this party. Life’s too short to mourn every deadline. This is better; it’s deep. It’s fun! We’re alive; let’s eat cake and laugh. You know? Haven’t you ever celebrated the Day of the Dead? Don’t try to convince me you know what death is, what it’s made of, what it calls for. You may convince yourself you know, but not me. I know. I laugh at the festivities.”
Most go first to the Family’s cosmetics launch for the new fall collection, featuring the limited-edition Grief palette.
Maybe you scream, or maybe you run, or maybe you rock along until the sun rises. Or you smile and wait for him to stroll away confused, so you’re alone amid the chaos asking yourself, “Are we celebrating death or life?” You wish to leave, but there is no good excuse as the eulogy is just beginning.
The Socialite’s mom stands tall in her white pantsuit behind a microphone beside the casket. She’s motioning, black bangs bouncing, to a teenage boy in the photo booth. “No need to bring it back, you keep it, really, yes, you pretty little thing. Hardly needed up here, really, what use would that be? Keep it, keep it!”
The music stops, the strobe lights go dark, and a rosy spotlight washes over her and the echoing, sobering giggles on her puffy lips. The masses halt as well; their whispers sizzle and hush, pithy embarrassment on the tail ends of their fading syllables. All eyes fall to her.
“We’re so glad everyone is here!” Cheers and cheers. “My beautiful, talented baby would be ecstatic to know everything she built has accumulated to this !” She spreads her arms grandly, absorbing the expanses of the ballroom. “My daughter may have been young, but her life was truly a chef d’oeuvre, so why make the funeral any different?”
A useless pause.
“I can’t see any better way to bring this party to its peak than with a special surprise.” The projector screen lights up red. “Introducing the official trailer for The Family , season 23. Tune in Sundays at nine.”
The video plays flashes of familiar faces and catfights, hints of selfie tutorials, proposals and breakups, Bahama vacations, gothic dramas morphed into roars of anguish, the modern American dream. “Want to find out how she really died?” the narrator booms. “It’s all in The Family , premiering this fall.” The screen glows— #HowTheSocialiteReallyDied —and then goes dark.
You realize the eulogist is already gone when the spotlights shut off, and for a moment you wonder if the music will start back up, if the strobes will flicker to life, if ghosts will well up and stalk the dance floor to reclaim their fame for one final night.
The party resumes, louder and loftier, each guest wasted and candid, the Family on their way out for a flight to New York, where the satellite event is seething. Next to you, a man you’ve only possibly met before asks, “Had enough? Wanna ditch this place, get a drink someplace quieter?”
And you think, The night’s forever young , as a limp bodysurfer floats your way, raging high above the shallow sea-salt waters of musty bodies, and some foul odor assaults your nose, royal and ripe, though not far fouler than the rest of this decaying bunch, and you know who it is they’re carrying above their heads as jesters would their queen atop her throne of lies, and someone jeers, “This arm ought to sell for, what, $5K?” and here a leg, there a leg, “Trade you my watch for the ring finger—it’s Rolex,” and now comes a long spread of auburn hair barreling toward your end of the cosmos, and a very young boy goes, “Get a whiff of that,” and now—now the world is screaming with white-hot fragments of mirth.