The Last Book Party

The Last Book Party

Karen Dukess

For Steve, Joe, and Johnny

“But how could you live and have no story to tell?”

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, White Nights

part one

June 1987


Walking up the dirt driveway to the summer home of Henry Grey, I reminded myself that I was an invited guest. Men in wrinkled linen shirts and baggy pants and women in loose, flowing skirts and dresses milled about on the ragged lawn in front of the old saltbox house. The wind off the ocean, a few hollows away, was gentle but steady, sending cocktail napkins floating like feathers.

Looking down at my flat espadrilles and wishing I had worn heels, I heard a woman say, “His ego’s as big as his canvas.” And from beyond her, a man’s booming voice: “What I should have said was ‘Edna St. Vincent Millay.’ What I said? ‘Edna St. Vincent Mulcahy!’” The speaker and his listeners roared with laughter. I took a few steps toward the crowd. A patrician man with a shock of white hair jostled his drink and said to his companion, “I knew Bob Gottlieb would usher in change, but I had hoped it would be more substantial than allowing the word fucking in The New Yorker.”

The guests were acting just as I had imagined they would. This was Truro’s summer elite, the writers, editors, poets, and artists who left their apartments in Manhattan and Boston around Memorial Day and stayed on Cape Cod into September. I knew of this circle from the occasional Talk of the Town piece and the gossip of my parents and their friends, who relished sharing a summer town with such famous intellectuals, even if they rarely crossed paths.

This crowd spent the summer in weathered, shingled Cape houses with screened porches, not tidy, new summer homes with open decks like the one my parents had purchased after years of renting. They played backgammon, drank gin, and gathered for endless round-robin tennis tournaments, not at Olivers’ in Wellfleet, where my parents and their friends paid by the hour, but on their own scruffy courts. With a few exceptions, they weren’t Jewish like us. As far as I knew, they didn’t even go to the beach.

I made my way through a group of people surrounding a wooden table, disappointed to discover it held nothing but a platter of deviled eggs and a small bowl of mixed nuts. Did the scant amount of food explain why everyone seemed so thin, their bodies as straight as their hair? I didn’t consider myself overweight, just a little soft around the edges, but as I stood among these angular people in my floral Laura Ashley sundress with its fitted bodice, I felt shamefully curvy.

Self-conscious about standing alone, I approached an old farmhouse table where two men were shucking oysters in a way that suggested a friendly competition. They were both tanned and solid, but one was young, maybe just a few years older than I was, with shiny brown hair pulled into a ponytail; the other was older, with wavy dark hair. When the older man looked up, I saw it was Henry Grey. He looked kinder and more handsome than the forbidding photograph on the jacket of his collection of columns, My New Yorker.

I introduced myself to Henry. He blinked.

“From Hodder, Strike and Perch?” I said. “Malcolm Wing’s secretary?”

Henry put down his shucking knife and threw his hands up in the air. “My God, Eve Rosen, you exist! The only actual human being employed by Hodder, Strike!”

Henry’s boisterous welcome set me at ease. The younger oyster shucker reached out his hand, still in a thick canvas glove.

“Happy to know you exist,” he said, with an easy, open smile. “I’m Franny, Henry’s indentured servant and son.”

I took his damp glove. Bits of oyster shell dug into my fingers as he clasped my hand. His eyes were an arresting green.

“Happy to know you exist too,” I said.

The sun had begun to slide down in the sky and was casting a honeyed light on everything. The tips of the long, wispy grass behind Franny appeared lit up.

It had never occurred to me that Henry might have a son, as our correspondence had been strictly business. His letters, which arrived by mail even when Henry was home in Manhattan, were composed on a manual typewriter, on crisp little pieces of ecru stationery with the initials HCG engraved in black ink. He wrote only a few lines, usually about something mundane like missing royalty statements, but always with great wit and biting sarcasm about Malcolm’s lack of attention. It was exciting to exchange letters with a New Yorker writer, even one who received so little respect around our office, due in part to his endless memoirs, which had been contracted by an editor who had retired long ago and were yet to be published. I spent considerable time crafting notes back to Henry, trying to be helpful while also sounding effortlessly funny and smart. Our correspondence was the highlight of my job.

Henry held out an oyster. “For you, the sole employee of Hodder, Strike and Perch deserving of a mollusk so fresh.”

I took the oyster and brought the shell to my mouth, conscious of both Franny and Henry watching as I slurped it down as delicately as I could manage.

“Briny and sweet?” Henry asked.

I nodded and wiped my mouth. I was struck by the men’s resemblance.

“Looking at the two of you is like flipping from Henry Past to Franny Future. You must get that all the time.”

“And looking at you is like downing a shot from the fountain of youth,” Henry said. “Another oyster?”

“OK, Henry, simmer down,” Franny said.

“Do you always call him Henry?” I asked, taking the second oyster.

“When it’s called for.”

Henry pushed his knife into the seam of a fresh oyster and opened it easily. He tossed the empty half in a bucket and, holding the filled shell in a gloved hand, flicked a few flakes from the flesh inside before setting it on a platter of ice at the end of the table. Looking at me, he spoke to Franny. “My boy, this young lady is a marvel of efficiency. And not at all what I expected. When I learned of her connection to Truro and invited her to join us, I was prepared to meet a skinny spinster in a cardigan sweater.”

Franny looked my way, shaking his head, and pointed his shucking knife toward his father. “He is such a relic.”

I stepped to the side of the table so other guests could get oysters but stayed close enough to continue the conversation. Bantering with Henry in person was more challenging than on paper, but I was determined to keep up. And it was easier than talking to Franny, whose good looks unnerved me.

“Is efficiency generally unattractive?” I asked Henry.

Still grinning, he nodded. “I have found it to be so.”

Franny took off his shucking gloves and tossed them on the table.

“OK, it’s time for a break,” he said, with a dazzling smile. “C’mon, Eve, I’ll show you around.”

Henry looked at Franny and then back at me. “Yes, of course, by all means, join our young brethren. But, Eve, really—if you ever need a job, I’m on the lookout for an efficient research assistant for the summer.”

I laughed. He couldn’t be serious. “It would be a tough commute from New York, but I’ll keep it in mind.”

I followed Franny up the hill toward the house. Looking back, I saw Henry watching us. I gave a little wave. Henry tapped his oyster knife to his forehead in a quick salute.

Franny stopped outside the screened porch. “So are you a writer too?” he asked. He pulled the rubber band from his hair, which swung down and brushed his broad shoulders.

“I’d like to be. But it’s hard until you know what you want to say.”

“Is it?” he said.

“I suppose it’s easy for you, growing up with it and everything.”

“Nope. Books are not my thing.”

He stated it as a simple fact, one which I found hard to believe, considering who his parents were. I was sure that if my parents were writers, rather than a tax attorney and a part-time interior decorator, I’d be further along toward becoming one myself.

Franny cocked his head. I heard the jumpy beat of “Walk Like an Egyptian.”

“I think there’s dancing,” Franny said.

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