Competition Kills

Gretchen “Gretch” Walden had been, above all else, renowned for her New Year’s Eve parties. They were always a very merry, very ribald affair…by suburban standards anyway. And she took to planning them at least twelve months in advance. That’s how invested—how committed—she was to giving people a good time. Or what she interpreted to mean being a “good time” (typically involving the bells and whistles of a lot of expensive accoutrements, including food, alcohol and entertainment). So naturally, she began her planning as usual at the outset of 2020, ignoring dim headlines of some kind of contagion running amok in China. What effect could anything in another country have on the U.S.? That was the general line of thinking on the part of Americans. They couldn’t “help it.” It was simply how they were conditioned to view themselves by their own equally insipid government. Ergo Gretch’s contented unawareness of anything happening outside her own environs. 

At the local market, called Yvonne’s (despite no one with any relationship to owning the store being named as such), Gretch was surprised to find one of her invited guests, Maude, shopping with marked fervor. With Gretch’s illustrious party now being only three days away—and despite vehement urgings from every official agency not to gather—she was certain that Maude’s unusually overstocked cart couldn’t possibly infer that she was planning to have her own dueling New Year’s Eve party. 

Gretch shook her head in disapproval at her own assumption. One that simply could not be accurate. Maude would never do anything so foolish as to jeopardize her standing in Gretch’s eyes. For Gretch was the very pillar of the St. John’s community. Hell, her own husband was named John, which gave her instantly more clout within and connection to the town. No, no. There was absolutely no way Maude was shopping for her own separate party. Though it did look awfully suspicious. And to confirm that suspicion, Gretch could overhear Maude gleefully telling the cashier, apropos of nothing, “Yes, I’m having about twenty people over. It’s going to be a grand soirée.”

It was unfathomable. She truly could not believe her diamond baguette-bedecked ears. A flurry of thoughts raced through her mind, including: Who did she think she was? Would Maude really be capable of this? Really think that Gretch wouldn’t find out about it and immediately retaliate? Honestly, where was Maude’s head at? In a flash, Gretch imagined it was decapitated and displayed among the meticulously arranged casaba melons nearby. But no, that would have to wait. In the meantime, she plastered on her best Stepford wife smile and approached Maude as though nothing at all was wrong. 

Maude, too, was game for pretending that her cavalier, insolent action wasn’t causing Gretch to have something like a mild coronary. “Gretch, darling, how are you?” Who actually deigned to say darling anymore? Was Maude trying to pull off some kind of Mid-Atlantic accent? Or sound like Cruella DeVil? Before Gretch could reflect on it for much longer, she remembered to reply to Maude’s query—all sweetness and sugar—with, “Oh. Fantastic. Just doing some last-minute shopping for my party. But then, I overhear you’re doing the same? Can that be?”

Maude blushed, then shrugged. “Gretch, I was going to call you, really. It’s just that this entire idea sprung up at the last moment. It was Randall’s doing, you see. He’s having some relatives in from Chicago, and he wants to be able to host his own party, you know. Really show them a good time.” 

“And you think that’s not something you could have done at my usual fiesta? The annual event of the season? The one that everybody is going to show up to while you and Randall are left alone with these alleged Chicagoans?”

Detecting the venom that was now unabashedly shining through, Maude tried her best to diffuse the anger radiating from her frenemy by placating, “I’m sure you’re right. We’re probably making a terrible mistake… I wish I could do something, but… it’s ultimately Randall’s decision.” 

Gretch stared daggers at Maude as she demanded, “Why is that?” 

Maude looked back at her quizzically, unable to fathom such a ridiculous question. “Why, Gretch. You really need me to spell it out for you?” When Gretch said nothing, Maude grinned and recited, “He who controls the purse strings makes the rules.” She shrugged and added, “I’m sure you know something about that.” 

The implication was blood-boiling as far as Gretch was concerned. She didn’t rely on money from John. She relied on it from her own family’s generational wealth. The nerve of this woman! As she tried to calm herself before bursting into flames, a shopper behind her bemoaned, “Oh God, they’re reporting another record death toll for today. How are we expected to ‘celebrate’ in this climate?” Any outsider might have reminded them that they weren’t expected to celebrate at all. In fact, the best thing to do would be to have a somber evening in, without a large crowd invited over. But these were not the types of people one could “reason” with. These were the types of people who orchestrated large gatherings during a pandemic. 

Both Gretch and Maude ignored the fellow shopper’s dire reading of the news. Instead, Gretch, swallowing all her rage, decided she would smile-sneer and conclude the interaction with, “Best of new year’s tidings to you then.” 

Alas, Maude wouldn’t make it very far into the New Year after contracting the dreaded disease that spread rampantly through her party—the one that most people in town ended up attending instead of Gretch’s. And so, the following year, when 2021 turned to 2022, the true queen bee of St. John’s was able to throw her fête without any competition whatsoever. And while most people were complaining about how corona was still ruining their lives, she kept on thinking about how it had saved her social one from being threatened by Maude this year.

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