The Ball at the End of the World existed at that narrow intersection of refined taste, decadent excess, and ironic misanthropy where all truly daring social coups occur.
Of course it was Salvatore Arravanche’s idea.
And because it was an Arravanche event, everyone came. There were no invitations—no illuminated scraps of cardstock, no cloying notifications ricocheting madly from phone to phone. Arravanche never bothered with such banalities as invitations. Everyone who was anyone always showed up anyway.
And it wasn’t any different for the Ball at the End of the World.
And we came.
Even while Hurricane Naomi bore down upon Manhattan, no more than eighteen hours off and still gaining power, even as she ratcheted up into that hazy space between Category 8 and Category 9, the same strength Marcus and Chantelle and Patricia had been when they’d wiped Florida, DC, and the Carolinas off the map, we came.
Even though northbound Routes 87 and 95 trickled, filled, and then glutted bumper to bumper with SUVs and minivans and overstuffed sedans packed three four five six seven to a car, cherished possessions lashed to the roof, pets held in laps, the same climate refugee caravan that we’d seen abandon a dozen great metropolises already, we came.
Even as the trains ran emergency service from South Ferry north to Mt. Vernon, packed beyond capacity by no more than a few stations past departure, as on foot the huddled masses surged over bridges, finding higher ground, even as the mayor stood at City Hall in the rising wind and spoke in a voice like the granite bedrock of the island, saying simply “do not attempt to stay,”—we came to the party.
Even as everyone who was no one fled the city, everyone who was anyone came. Some rode chauffeured limos and faux self-driving cars. These days they are a scam; the desert is too hot for data centers anymore, and hidden in the trunk a man drives by camera. Some of us flew in by helicopter, whirling back down from our retreats in the Berkshires. A handful arrived by submarine—a nuclear missile boat converted to a luxury redoubt for a dozen persons of means, whose captain would submerge her into the Hudson canyon when Naomi hit and ride out the storm a quarter-mile beneath the waves, and whose passengers insisted that it resurface so they could make it to the last party of all the parties. Just a couple came on foot: at any Manhattan party there are always those lucky few who happen to live a single block over, for whom any other mode of transit is an affectation.
And I came by subway.
It is common knowledge that in New York City everyone, rich or poor, takes the subway. It’s mostly true, which is to say, true enough. As I waited for the elevator, smoothing my lapels and evening out the wings of my bowtie, it occurred to me: this would be my last chance to ride. I cancelled my car as I descended toward the lobby. Our doormen had long since deserted their posts and so I let myself out into the street.
I went underground at Canal Street. Two minutes until the Q; I spent them idly regarding the subway map. So many different places to go, even with the ugly NO SERVICE bruise that had covered the South Brooklyn from Red Hook to Coney Island ever since Hurricane Simon four years back. So many things I’d never get the chance to do.
In life you always have all the time in the world right up until there’s no time left at all.
The Q pulled into the station and I rode it uptown. The Q is not an evacuation route—it never leaves the island of Manhattan—and so the crowd of riders was almost preternaturally ordinary. Commuters headed home. Revellers headed out. Homeless headed nowhere. One old guy sat in a heap of shopping bags—two dozen, three dozen—clearly the result of a hunkering-down grocery run. Maybe he hadn’t heard the mayor’s warning. Maybe he had never seen the pictures of downtown Miami after Marcus, towers sheared and twisted, of Washington after Chantelle returned it overnight to the swamp. Maybe he just didn’t care.
Nobody tried to warn him. In a disaster it would be different but on the normal subway you don’t talk to strangers, and Naomi had not yet made landfall.
At midtown I got off the train. When I emerged from underground, the scene was gratifyingly distressed. Traffic in the escape-bound directions—uptown to the Bronx or west to Jersey—had the appropriate rags-and-tatters refugee aesthetic, as reconceived in a city where everyone wears black and my pants cost more than you make in a year. Pedestrians on foot with heavy bags coursed in the same directions. New York is always bustling but this was something more; the only person staying in one spot was a homeless man leaning against the edge of a building. His cup overflowed with spare bills he would not have a chance to spend.
The party was in the ballroom of a certain grand hotel. Unlike our apartment building, Arravanche had held on to his doormen. They were out of their customary livery and instead dressed in turquoise and aquamarine formalwear; each wore a half-facemask in the pattern of a beachdrift skull. though which half—brow or jaw, or left or right profile—varied from servant to servant. Arravanche must have bought out the whole building. He was always doing shit like that.
As I neared the door, I saw two doormen turn away an insistent woman in an evening gown. She must have known about the party, and normally that was all one needed to enter an Arravanche event, but this time a stricter list was clearly being enforced. Good for them; as she stomped off past me, improbably high heels entwining like ruched and sparkling seaweed around her calves, I recognized Lucia Cortez, gossip blogger and mocker, muckraker, and hot-taker. An “activist.”
Good riddance. The last party she’d managed to crash was poor Ronnie Wackym’s birthday and in the quiet lull between the appetizers and the entrées she had climbed onto a table, a cell phone recording in each hand, and asked us all how we could eat molecular gastronomy while the DC refugees starved in the Hoboken camps.
I approached the doormen. Up close their masks went from daring to genuinely uncanny. Glass eyes set in sand-bleached bone—a facsimile, I had to assume—stared silently at me for longer than was comfortable. But whatever list Lucia was off, I was on, and they waved me inside.
When you grow up in Manhattan’s upper crust the layout of certain Midtown hotels is seared into your marrow by countless childhood excursions. Arravanche had erected false walls, movable screens, and drop cloths; the familiar layout had been reinscribed with a foreign labyrinth, on whose walls were painted waves, aquatic scenes, maps of the city, plans for failed skyscrapers. Still I made it through, step by twisting step, and until I quite suddenly found myself in the ballroom.
This was where Arravanche’s genius made itself known.
In truth, any party on that night would have been a smashing success, if only because there were no other parties to attend. But Arravanche was not content with success; he insisted upon mastery.
The ballroom was, as always, cavernous. Its eaves were darkened and angled mirrors gave it the depth of the night sky. Pinprick LEDs suggested stars, and the flash of floodlights gave us the lightning outside. The food lined the east and west walls of the ballroom. And what a feast! Calving icebergs of crystal sugar. Chocolate landslides a story high. Charleston red rice in little waterproof dishes sunken beneath a saltwater lake. Churrascaria in the shape of rescue helicopters. Punch bowls of morir soñando with swirling hurricanes of foam. The ¡Cuba Aquae!, a cocktail of gin and club soda and just a hint of sugarcane. Ice sculptures of nudes from classical antiquity, staged half-melted. And on and on ...
And in the center of the ballroom was the coup de grâce: the dance floor.
The entire dance floor had been remade into a map of the city. The only true city that is; the island of Manhattan. That familiar shape, a fumble-fingered hand-rolled cigarette, a butcher’s knife, rose embossed in mahogany from the floor. The map, midtown’s regular grid and its damaged daughters—Heights, Village, Battery, their streets askew—was picked out in subtle inlays of oak and cherry. And the pièce de résistance: in the Hudson and East Rivers, in the Harlem River and the Spuyten Duyvil, carved into the floor, there were actual rivers of water flowing from the north end of the ballroom out to the harbour in the south. Just an inch deep, but still. It was incredible.
I did not show my surprise. New York was a Dutch city first, and an English one after that; our upper classes have always carried an emotional reserve with them. One doesn’t gasp, ever. But I was impressed.
The ballroom filled. I nibbled on a Miami-style fish taco, garnished with saltwater and forget-me-nots. Once the cod would have been too low-class to make an appearance at a meal like that, but these days fish are worth their weight in gold.
It was delicious regardless.
It was still in that early state of the party where you talk to your acquaintances; not your friends. I went swirling through the preparty motions. Seeing and being seen. Exchanging a nod or just a few words. We seldom touched on the important, or even the novel. When we spoke of the dance floor we did so in studied, worldly tones. Nobody mentioned Hurricane Naomi.
When everyone who was anyone had finally sussed out their way to the ballroom, the lights blackened, then flashed. The faux thunder roared.
Everyone was glancing around, stifling their excitement, hiding their fear; waiting for Arravanche to make his entrance.
When he did it was, gratifyingly, as grand as I’d hoped. The lights darkened for almost a minute and then a single spotlight sliced through the darkness and fell upon the middle of Manhattan—but instead of flat wood there was an imposing, ten-foot model of the Empire State Building. It was cartoonishly out of proportion, squat and stubby, but the distorted shape was unmistakable. It looked something like those rubbery tchotchkes that tourists buy at JFK and LaGuardia and that they would now install in their makeshift climate shrines in their hometowns all over the country. Which would eventually be themselves abandoned as the lines of heat and storm marched inexorably up the map.
Straddling the tall mast with his feet firmly planted on the exaggeratedly broad observation deck, which widened into a sort of grotesque podium, was Salvatore Arranche.
He was clad in a resplendent suit of shimmering rainbow scales. On anyone else it would have seemed like an entertainer’s affectation but on him it was somehow the height of fashion. His shoes were black. His tie was black. His eyeshadow was sparkling.
He swung easily around the antenna and for one absurd moment I was confident he would burst into that old Gene Kelly number, “I’m singin’ in the rain! Just singin’ in the rain ...”
But camp was never quite his style. Instead he remained standing upright. His smile somehow widened.
Scattered polite applause.
“Tonight is the very last night of the city of New York.”
A deeply awkward silence. It was true. We all knew it was true. The truth was etched into the Weather Channel maps and the refugee caravans and the discreet, unequivocal presentations we had each received from our family’s wealth managers. The truth was etched into our faces and our feet and our spines. A truth like this was not for saying.
But Salvatore Arranche said it. That was the kind of man he was. And awkward or not he kept speaking.
“Tonight is the very last bite of the big apple, the final crowning glory in the Empire city, the ultimate twirl at the very center of the universe.
“But, friends, we are not going gentle into that good night! We greet the final storm not with a mewling whimper but with pyrotechnics, with the biggest bang of them all! I have sealed this storied hotel against all intruders! Here in this exclusive paradise we are safe from the chaos outside. Here we can show Naomi that New York society is not afraid of anything!
“My friends, welcome to the Ball at the End of the World!”
His hands erupted in a flourish. Mad applause erupted from the crowd; hoots and cheers. Doors at the periphery of the ballroom flung open and servants rushed in with new carts, revealing that the lavish spread we’d seen was just the beginning. Haute cuisine and cheap street food. Halal Brothers and Joe’s Pizza rubbed shoulders with Per Se and Momofuku. Cart upon cart upon cart of champagne, liquor, blow, pills, poppers—what would the NYPD do, arrest us?—tumbled inward. The music began to blare. Hidden screens descended and strobelights leapt to life. This was like no ball that had ever been.
I would like to say that we hesitated for a moment before throwing ourselves into debauchery. The truth is that everything happened instantaneously. From the first moment the first waiter, dashing theatrically, wheeled in the first mountain of cocaine, white powder streaming out behind him like the chemtrails from cloud-seeding jets that had not saved DC, we fell upon the feast like animals.
No. Not like animals. Like men.
What is there to say about the party? Well, what is there to say about any party? Light, noise, thirst. Gratification. I danced, gorged, fucked—I think, who’s to say?—lay on the floor and howled, linked arms and sang, waltzed, fell over, watched a fistfight (encouraged it), washed out the loser’s cuts with thousand-dollar vodka, set a small fire using hors d’oeuvres, snorted heroin off of a countess’s “topless decolletage,” that is, her tits.
In a lull in the action I found myself over to the side, nibbling on a collapsed skyscraper made mainly of marzipan, and in that moment, by chance, by the swirling eddies of the party, my circle came to me. Parties are always doing that sort of thing; there’s a magic to it.
There are basically three levels of social organization. The first is “society,” which contains literally everyone you might conceivably want to know—old money and new, movie stars and magnates, artists and bankers, the whole shebang. Within society is the “crowd;” the sort of loose affiliation one belongs to. A crowd can be an age, or a place, or a club, or a hobby. And within the crowd is the “circle”—the people you actually do things with, all together.
There were five of us in my circle—me, and David, and Auvaline, and Michal, and Marguerie—and by that subtle party magic all of us were passing by the collapsed skyscraper at the same time and so of course we fell in together. Hugs all around, and kisses for the girls. Auvaline and I shared a look but didn’t let it get beyond that. Whatever she’d been to me and I to her, we had the circle dynamic to consider.
Small talk ensued, desperately quotidien. I scanned the outfits. Marguerie in a fitted dress of coral silk, side-slit up to her hip, and Auvaline in a velvet sea-glass-green evening gown; David and Michal in assembly-line tuxedos. It was unlike Michal; he was always more fashionable than the rest of us and the Ball was certainly an opportunity to take a style risk.
“I know,” he said, sorrowfully. “But all my good suits are already in Toronto.”
“Is that where you’re headed, then?” With the subject broached, I could finally ask what we’d all been wondering—where would we each be in the morning.
Michal nodded. “It’s really the only great city left. The only one with true culture. I—”
“Well I’m going to Oslo,” said Marguerie. It was of course quite like her to interrupt, but I didn’t mind. “Half the clubs in the world are there now.”
“Moscow for me,” said David. “We’re moving most of the family business to Russia. They’ve got the land, and with all those Bangladeshi refugees they’ve got the manpower too. But if you work in Russia you have to live in Moscow.” He shrugged. “It’s not so bad.”
“Daddy’s dragging the whole family to that compound he bought up in Alberta,” said Auvaline. Frowns around the circle. “I know, I know. But it’s just until things settle down, he says.”
Four pairs of eyes turned to me.
“Oh, I don’t know,” I said. “The Adirondacks, for now.”
Marguerie laughed. “Oh, come on.”
“Be realistic,” said David. “The Adirondacks aren’t a place, they’re a, a suburb. The city’s going away. You can’t come back.”
And then it was said and there was no going back from that either.
A long pause. Out on the dance floor the music beat out its endless crescendo.
“It’s a damn shame,” said Auvaline. “A damn shame.” She sounded almost angry, which was quite a lot of sentiment for her. I’ve never known Auvaline to let her feelings show. Even in those two wondrous weeks we spent secretly engaged in Paris, when I wept with joy or sorrow she would never do more than wryly shrug.
Nods around the circle. “Someone should have done something,” said David, forcefully, decisively. More nods, and mine among them, for who can disagree with that? Someone should have done something. Something should have been done.
But I couldn’t help but remember that David’s family money was in energy, which is to say coal and gas, which is to say: carbon dioxide. That Michal’s father had bought and sold banks for the Saudi royal family—most of whom, these days, are no longer in their now-dessicated and ungovernable kingdom, but living peacefully in compounds along the Humber River, not far from Toronto. That Marguerie’s money came from everywhere and nowhere, but that her mother’s chequebook had never been closed when the right sort of lobbyist came calling to beat back government overreach and creeping socialism in environmental regulation. That Auvaline was older money than any of us; that it all flowed down from a founding share of Standard Oil.
I tell these tales together and they sound like an accusation, like this is all our fault. But you must understand: these were my friends from childhood. These were just ordinary facts about their lives. Where does your father work. What does your mother do.
Someone should have done something.
Well. The family fortune is in a lot of places, which is a good idea when things are volatile. Much of it is these days in munitions, which is another way to monetize volatility. Drones and smartguns. Business is good.
Someone should certainly have done something.
But perhaps the vicious tenor of my thoughts passed unnoticed because Marguerie spoke then, and she said “If only we’d had someone like Salvatore Arravanche back then. He could have straightened it out.”
“What are you talking about?” said David. “He’s just a venture capitalist. Who, granted, throws great parties, but they had tons of venture capitalists back then.”
“He’s not a VC,” said Michal. “I heard he just won the Turbo Trillions lottery. Twice.”
The government has mostly ground to a halt but the lotteries are still running. We must have bread and roses, and, failing both, at least the whirling gold sign of the roulette wheel.
“No, he’s a producer,” said Marguerie.
“A producer’s what you are when you have money,” said David. “We’re talking about how he got it.”
“You can make your money in producing.”
“Not Arravanche money.”
“I heard,” said Auvaline, with that quiet tone that always cut through the rest of our bickering, “that he’s the man who sold Nauru.”
“Yeah,” said Auvaline. “You know. Nauru? Pacific Island country? Completely flooded? Nothing to be done about it. Nothing left but refugees. And then some midlevel minister sold the country to an international consortium for tax purposes? And now everyone’s yachts are under Nauru flag and you’re all pretending to be Nauruan on your tax returns?”
Mingled looks of confusion and familiarity revealed who precisely in our circle was paying attention to their tax strategies, but I will not tell on my friends.
“Anyway,” she continued. “I heard that he—the guy who sold Nauru—said that he would give the money to the refugees, you know? Set up orphanages, that sort of thing, since he had lost his own family in the floods. Or something. So everyone felt good about it. But then he took the cash and disappeared. Three years later up pops Arravanche. Different name, different face, but you can buy those. And that’s the story.”
“Shit,” said Michal. “The big brass balls on the guy to pull something like that off! I’ll drink to that!” His glass rose wobblily. Mine did not follow. Something about Auvaline’s story filled me with a formless dread.
“Say,” I said. “Has anyone seen Arravanche? In the past few hours?”
Headshakes around the circle.
“You know,” said David, “for that matter. The waiters seem to have gone too.”
So they had. The carts, so generously laden, stood empty where emptied, stood half-empty where half-emptied; the refuse, of all kinds, was everywhere. Nobody was cleaning it up.
“What time is it?” said David. “I think I’d actually better be off.” We checked. It was quite a bit later than we had realized. Time flies when you’re snorting lines of snow. You’ve got all the time in the world right up until there’s none left at all.
Marguerie held in her scream long enough to fling herself at the nearest door and so she was the first to find that they were sealed and locked. Airtight. Answering screams from across the ballroom, barely audible above the mechanical music that still pounded out on the dance floor, suggested that she was not the only one to make that discovery.
David rushed up behind her, shoved her out of the way, and began to slam his shoulder into the door. Michal got a tray and started hammering on the knob. Marguerie fell to her knees behind them, crying.
And Auvaline, my love, stepped one foot closer to the spot where I still stood, rooted to the floor. In that voice of pure and lovely irony, just as light as if we were speaking of the weather, she asked me, “Does it feel a little ... warm to you?”
I nodded. And then, of course, the water began to rise.
Copyright © 2022 Louis Evans. First published in Fusion Fragment. Reprinted with permission of the author.
Louis Evans grew up in a Manhattan high rise. (Where does your father work. What does your mother do.) He lives not far from rising waters. His work has appeared previously in Little Blue Marble, as well as in Vice, F&SF, Nature: Futures, and more.