Early navigated the room with a panache befitting the guest of honor. The fact that he was but one of the invited many did nothing to discourage the lopsided grin from his freckled face. This was his night.
Spying a familiar couple loitering in the vicinity of the punch bowl, Early staggered in their direction.
“David! Katherine,” Early boomed, thrusting his hand like a bayonet at the former before wrapping the latter in a boozy half-embrace.
“What’s it been, two, three years?”
“What a surprise,” the woman said through a forced smile. Her eyes implored her husband for help as she tried to wriggle out from under Early’s heavy forearm.
“More like six or seven,” David corrected, extracting his wife, Carol, by her bony elbow.
“How’s the house,” Early continued undeterred. Red liquid sloshed over the rim of the punch bowl as he lunged for the ladle, scattering several fellow revelers.
“Outgrown that little place yet? Prices are really on the rise, it might be the time to move on up!”
“We did,” David deadpanned, staring directly into his former agent’s swimming, cobalt eyes. “This fall.”
“Good for you,” Early gushed, clapping the intense, little man on the shoulder. “You should have called me, though. I would have gotten you more money.”
“Funny you say that-” David began, but Early was already on the move.
The couple shared an eye roll as the squishy man in the small, plaid coat plowed through a knot of protesting guests en route to his next target.
“Jathon,” Early slurred as he locked on to another past client. His prey’s eyes darted in all directions for a lifeline, but it was too late. He was caught in the drunken tractor beam.
“Hello, Early,” Jason mumbled, offering a stick of gum to the close-talker that was summarily declined. “How’s it going?”
“That depends,” Early grinned, confident in his wittiness. “Why don’t you ask my jeweler?”
He flashed a turquoise boulder that was the latest in a long procession of candidates to adorn his left ring finger.
“Don’t tell the ex, though,” Early whisper-shouted with an exaggerated wink. “She’ll hit me up for more child support.”
“So you’re back in real estate, then,” Jason stated rhetorically.
“Yessir, back in black,” Early bragged, punctuating the boast with a clumsy attempt at shadow boxing.
“Too bad you weren’t around two years ago when I had to sell short,” Jason lamented, a twinge of spite turning the statement into an accusation. “I called your office. They said you were selling mobile phone plans.”
“Two years ago, you say,” Early asked, his thin, reddish-blonde eyebrows arching. “That means you should be in a position to buy!”
Early fumbled through his jacket for a card. He wiggled the tips of his sausage fingers just far enough into a strained breast pocket to extract one.
“Wait, wrong one,” Early frowned, tucking the card for his event planning business back in his pocket and fishing out another one. “Ah, here it is!”
Jason marveled at the hand-written name and cell phone number before declining the offering.
“Thanks Early, but I’m already hooked up with someone.”
“Come on, Jathon,” Early groaned, nearly falling as he swayed forward. He was now sweating profusely in the cold room.
“Whoth gonna get you a better deal than me?”
“Oh I don’t know,” Jason replied. “Maybe someone who sticks with me in the down times, too?”
“Whath that thuppoth to mean,” Early demanded, his brow beetled to comedic degree with confusion.
Several nearby guests looked at the pair sharply.
“You’re a front-runner, Early,” Jason informed the teetering agent.
“You’re damn right I am,” Early boomed, spilling his drink and missing the point.
The rubber-neckers slowly backed away from the unfolding scene.
“How can I trust you today if you won’t be around for the consequences tomorrow,” Jason asked pointedly. “You hop in and out of the business like a rabbit with ADD.”
“I-uh, well, that’s just …,” Early stammered. “Guy’s gotta make a living …”
“Have a nice night, Early,” Jason excused himself.
“Fine! Who needs you anyway,” Early shouted after him. “I’m knocking down ten k a month! How’s THAT for front running?!”
The room went quiet as all eyes fell upon the reeling agent. A slender woman weaved through the stunned gawkers, the clicking of her heels clearly audible.
“You promised you wouldn’t do this, Early,” the hostess said quietly upon reaching him, her red-sequined dress now attracting attention she didn’t want.
“Do what,” Early croaked, gesturing at the silent throng, “Offer my friends the deal of a lifetime?!”
“MY friends, Early,” she corrected. “Mine.”
“Oh, okay. I get it,” Early announced, hands up in defensive fashion. “I see how it is. Well, the hell with you, sis!”
“The hell with all of you,” he boomed, his face turning a deep crimson.
He lurched towards the door after making a circuitous detour to refill his dixie cup. He stopped in the doorway and turned to face the hushed crowd. He held the cup aloft as if making a toast.
“Early Croffort, proudly not serving any of your real estate needs since 2012,” he spit.
Early took as deep a bow as his equilibrium would allow, downed the contents, crushed the cup in his fist, and extended his middle finger.
“Happy new year, fukerths!”
With that, he turned and stormed into the night.
The silence in the room lingered for a full minute.
“And here I thought the downturn weeded agents like him from the industry,” a man’s voice chimed in, breaking the silence.
“It did,” another assured him. “For awhile, at least. Now that the market’s getting better, all the zombies are coming back to life. Agents like him are straight Freddy Kruger.”
“Where did he come from anyway,” a bewildered woman asked.
“Personal referral,” yet another party-goer answered. Nearly everyone in attendance cast a look at the mortified hostess whose head was now buried in her hands.
“Just goes to show there’s only one place to find someone you can truly trust these days,” someone else decreed.
The guests looked around at each other, nodding. Murmured agreement rippled through the gathering before numerous voices made the proclamation in unison.