There was music from my neighbor’s house through the summer nights. In blue gardens men and women came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars. In the afternoon I watched the zombies swarm onto the hot sand beach, the subsequent mayhem taking the winsome by surprise. Two motor-boats slit the waters of the Sound, drawing aquaplanes over cataracts of bloody foam. I imagined that his eight servants including an extra gardener would toil all weekend with sword, spear, ballpeen hammer, and sledge, defending the ivy-covered walls that surrounded the estate. Sometime later, the mops and scrubbing-brushes and bleach and garden-shears, would repair the ravages of these dark times.
By seven o’clock a whole pit full of oboes and trombones and saxophones and violas and cornets and piccolos and low and high drums succeeded in drowning out the undead on the beach. The halls and salons and verandas are gaudy with primary colors and hair shorn in strange new ways and shawls beyond the dreams of Castile. The bar is in full swing and floating rounds of cocktails permeate the garden outside until the air is alive with chatter and laughter and casual innuendo and introductions forgotten on the spot and enthusiastic meetings between the living and the living dead.
The lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun and now the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music and the opera of voices pitches a key higher. Laughter is easier, minute by minute, spilled with prodigality, tipped out at a cheerful word. The zombies charge more swiftly, swell with new arrivals, dissolve and form in the same breath—already there are outliers, confident spawn who weave here and there among the stouter and more stable, become for a sharp, joyous moment the center of a group and then excited with blood lust glide on through the sea-change of faces and voices and color under the constantly changing light.
One of the bodyguards in trembling opal, seizes a cocktail out of the air, dumps it down for courage, and dances out alone on the canvas platform. A momentary hush; the orchestra leader varies his rhythm obligingly for her and there is a burst of chatter as the erroneous news goes around that she is Gatsby’s lover from the “Follies.” Relentless zombies join her on the stage but a rapier is tossed by some gallant and her thrust and parry is pure showbiz. The party has begun.
I wandered around rather ill-at-ease among swirls and eddies of combatants I didn’t know—though here and there was a face I had noticed on the commuting train. I was immediately struck by the number of youngish zombies dotted about; all well dressed, all looking hungry and all making low repulsive rumbles. I was sure that they were selling something: change is inevitable, death is just a part of life, we’ll meet again. They were, at least, agonizingly aware of the easy prey in the vicinity and convinced in their Ivy League brains that it was theirs for the taking.
I made an attempt to wade through the crowd and find my host but the two or three people of whom I asked his whereabouts stared at me in horrified detachment and denied so vehemently any knowledge of his movements that I slunk off in the direction of the cocktail table—the only place in the garden where a solo human could linger without looking pointless and alone.
I was on my way to get roaring drunk from sheer embarrassment when Jordan Baker came out of the house and stood at the head of the marble steps, leaning a little backward and looking with contemptuous interest down into the garden mayhem.
Welcome or not, I found it necessary to attach myself to someone before I should surely die.
Two girls leaned together next to Jordan and spoke confidentially.
“Somebody told me they thought Gatsby killed his first zombie at Verdun.”
She narrowed her eyes and shivered. We all turned and looked around for Gatsby. It was testimony to the romantic speculation he inspired that there were whispers about him from those who found little that it was necessary to whisper about in this world.
The first supper—there would be another one after midnight—was now being served, and Jordan invited me to join her hangers on who were spread around a table on the other side of the garden. Instead of rambling this party had preserved a dignified homogeneity, and assumed to itself the function of representing the staid nobility of the countryside—East Egg condescending to West Egg, and carefully on guard against its spectroscopic gayety.
“Let’s get out of here,” whispered Jordan, Gatsby’s caterers won’t be able to control the grounds much longer, of that I feel certain.”
The bar, where we glanced first, was crowded but Gatsby was not there. She couldn’t find him from the top of the steps, and he wasn’t on the veranda. On a whim we tried an important-looking door, and walked into a high Gothic library, paneled with carved English oak, and probably transported complete from some ruin overseas.
A stout, middle-aged man with enormous owl-eyed spectacles was sitting somewhat drunk on the edge of a great table, pointing a Luger with unsteady concentration directly at us. As we approached he wheeled excitedly around and examined Jordan from head to foot.
“What do you think?” he demanded impetuously.
He waved his hand toward the bodies scattered around the table.
“Impressive,” Jordan said, smiling at me.
“I almost shot you both, you know.” Owl Eyes lowered the Luger. “Can’t really tell you apart. Living zombies, dead zombies. Such a sour stew.”
A machine gun rattled below.
There was dancing now on the canvas in the garden, the dance of death, old men pushing young girls backward in eternal graceless circles, superior couples holding each other tortuously, fashionably and keeping in the corners—and a great number of single girls dancing individualistically or relieving the orchestra for a moment of the burden of the banjo or the traps. By midnight the hilarity had increased. A celebrated tenor had sung in Italian and a notorious contralto had sung in jazz and between the numbers people were doing “stunts” all over the garden, while happy vacuous bursts of laughter rose toward the summer sky. A pair of stage “twins”—who turned out to be the girls in yellow—did a baby act in costume and champagne was served in glasses bigger than finger bowls. The moon had risen higher, and floating in the Sound was a triangle of silver scales, trembling a little to the stiff, tinny drip of the banjoes on the lawn.
I was still with Jordan Baker. We were sitting at a table with a man of about my age and a rowdy little girl who gave way upon the slightest provocation to uncontrollable laughter. I was enjoying myself now. I had taken two finger bowls of champagne and the scene had changed before my eyes into something significant, elemental and profound.
At a lull in the bloodshed the man looked at me and smiled.
“Your face is familiar,” he said, politely. “Weren’t you in the Third Division during the war?”
“Why, yes. I was in the Ninth Machine-Gun Battalion.”
“I was in the Seventh Infantry until June nineteen-eighteen. I knew I’d seen you somewhere before.”
It was on the tip of my tongue to ask his name when Jordan looked around and smiled.
“This is an unusual party for me. I haven’t even seen the host. I live over there—” I waved my hand at the invisible hedge in the distance, “and this man Gatsby sent over his chauffeur with an invitation.”
For a moment he looked at me as if he failed to understand.
“I’m Gatsby,” he said suddenly.
“What!” I exclaimed. “Oh, I beg your pardon.”
“I thought you knew, old sport. I’m afraid I’m not a very good host.”
Almost at the moment when Mr. Gatsby identified himself a bald-headed butler hurried toward him with the information that Chicago was calling him on the wire.
“If you want anything just ask for it, old sport,” he urged me. “Excuse me. I will rejoin you later.”
There was the boom of a bass drum, and the blood curdling scream of the orchestra leader rang out above the echolalia of the garden.
“I beg your pardon.”
Gatsby’s butler was looming over us.
Jordan got up slowly, raising her eyebrows at me in astonishment, nodding to the bloody stump of an arm, and made as if to follow the butler toward the house. I noticed that she wore her evening dress, all her dresses, like sports clothes—there was a jauntiness about her movements as if she had first learned to walk upon golf courses on clean, crisp mornings. She turned, reached for a driver from the golf bag next to the chrysanthemums, and with one fluid swing, detached his bald head from his torso, and sent it skittering over a hedge to the garden below.
“Couldn’t have done better myself,” a man said.
Half a dozen fingers pointed at the butler’s amputated head—they stared at it for a moment and then looked upward as though suspecting that it had dropped from the sky.
“It came off,” someone explained.
Most of the remaining women were now having fights with zombie men said to be their husbands. Even Jordan’s party, the quartet from East Egg, were rent asunder by dissension. One of the men was talking with curious intensity to a young zombie actress, and his wife after attempting to laugh at the situation in a dignified and indifferent way broke down entirely and resorted to flank attacks with a broken bottle—at intervals she appeared suddenly at his side like an angry diamond, and hissed “You promised!” into his ear.
The reluctance to go home was not confined to wayward men. The hall was at present occupied by two deplorably sober men and their highly indignant wives. The wives were sympathizing with each other in slightly raised voices.
“Whenever he sees I’m having a good time he wants to go home.”
“Never heard anything so selfish in my life.”
“We’re always the first ones to leave.”
“So are we.”
“Well, we’re almost the last tonight,” said one of the men sheepishly. “The orchestra left half an hour ago.”
“The ones who were still in one piece,” the other man said.
In spite of the wives’ agreement that such malevolence was beyond credibility, the dispute ended in a short struggle, and both wives were lifted kicking into the night.
But as I stumbled down the steps I saw that the evening was not quite over. Fifty feet from the door a bonfire illuminated a bizarre and tumultuous scene. In the ditch beside the road, the bodies writhed while Gatsby’s men chopped away at their heads with axes. Others shoveled limbs into the flames. The sharp jut of a blade accounted for the detachment of a hand which was now getting considerable attention from half a dozen curious undead. However, as cars were blocking the road a harsh discordant din from those in the rear had been audible for some time and added to the already violent confusion of the scene.
The caterwauling horns had reached a crescendo as I turned away and cut across the lawn toward home. I glanced back once. A wafer of a moon was shining over Gatsby’s house, making the night fine as before and spotlighting the clatter and the gore of his still glowing garden. A frigid emptiness seemed to flow now from the windows and the great doors, endowing with complete isolation the figure of the surviving host who stood on the porch, his bloody hand up in a formal gesture of farewell.
Born in Washington, DC, raised in Bethesda, MD, and now living in Arlington, VA, poet, writer, editor, teacher, publisher, Richard Peabody wears many literary hats. The author of a novella and three short story collections, he taught graduate fiction writing at Johns Hopkins University for 15 years. His Gargoyle Magazine (founded 1976) released issue 75 in August 2022. The Richard Peabody Reader, a career-encompassing collection, was released in 2015 by Alan Squire Publishing, as the first book in their ASP Legacy Series.
Riffing on chapter 3 of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
Image: “Guardstand” by Destinee Dearbeck