His Dinner Party (C) Lee D. Thompson
‘His Dinner Party’ appeared in Riddle Fence #5, 2011
Though this letter is messenger of terrible news, let me again commend you on another exquisite dinner party. How many years Marissa and I have been attending your fabulous soirees, we are not sure, but each gathering is a leap far beyond the previous. Why, this morning, sitting in bed, the sun shining through apricot taffeta curtains, enjoying our French espressos, laughing, we wondered what you could do to top Friday evening’s superb liaison of ambiance and culinary excellence? You are a master chef, H., you are our God. May Heaven’s angels one day welcome you with golden blare of trumpet. And may we be worthy of further invitation.
There was one matter, however, which Marissa and I were eager to discuss, though perhaps eager is not the most fitting word. As we were leaving the party, slipping off into the moonless night, stopping at the busy highway, where headlights flashed my lovely wife’s startled eyes, we paused and, without words, questioned our action, or in this case inaction, at the party, and we knew that, without hesitation, we should have returned. But it’s so late, Marissa said, and hadn’t we done enough to spoil the evening? I could not disagree with my wife.
Do you recall, my dearest friend, when you approached us shortly after we had arrived, when we were lingering near the wine table, feigning indecision over pinot noir and shiraz, yet still in our thoughts, huddled? You have a way with people, H., you read us like the Cree read the forest floor, and we are your easy prey. We laughed, yes, said no, certainly nothing was wrong, choosing from such delicious vintage has thrown us off our game, do you recommend the shiraz? or? And you were generous, knowing we weren’t ready, knowing that we’d come to you in due time. You merely asked us, as you walked away from the wine table, if we had seen N., for he was expected.
We realize now how transparent our denial must have been. We are fools, bumbling through life, tripping over truths in plain sight, while you glide, like a blade through tenderest veal. Yes, we had seen N., and we’d intended to tell you before leaving, but the cognac made Marissa quite nervous, it always does, caused us to rush out into the crisp night. We did not say proper farewells and for that we feel ashamed. But the coq au vin, H., have I not mentioned the main course? We have all had acceptable coq au vin, it is perhaps an overly common dish, but when we saw what you had prepared we clutched each other in delight, and Marissa, I believe, squealed. This morning as I was making my way to the washroom, to the shower, Marissa said wait, and I paused as commanded, and she let her bathrobe fall from her left shoulder, exposing a luscious nipple, and, her eyes narrowed to harlot perfection, whispered coq au vin.
Oh, H., it was the bomb that blasted my nothingness into numinous!
But, as my wife now reminds me, I am straying from the topic, a problem, I admit, that’s inhabited my ancestors from time immemorial, as no doubt we were they who kept the caves alive with story long into the prehistoric night. And I must also admit that there is no thrill in sharing our unfortunate news, news that would have, surely, blackened the mood of the party. Who wants to be the one to the point out there’s mold on the baguette, and a maggot in the brie? I remember once there was a dead fly in Marissa’s stuffed olives, but we were having such a wonderful afternoon, a picnic by the river, so I simply picked it off, did not tell her. I do regret not telling her, for I’d prefer she do the same for me.
I have known you since childhood, H., and though we were not the closest of friends, I do recall acts of kindness towards me, I who was bullied so greatly. Funny how life turns out, isn’t it? Marissa now wonders: Where are those bullies now? In jail! I say. Paying for their sins! Suffering! She says. But no, I tell her, no living creature should suffer much, for N., when we last saw him, was suffering greatly. Do you see his eyes? my wife whispered as we walked away. And though the sun was setting behind the forest trees, I did see his eyes. It was quite disturbing, but there was nothing we could do.
Marissa has left, saying she needs fresh air. Our windows are open but she needs to move, will find herself on the path to the highway, will linger near the river, will mutter something about needing to clear the alders, will wonder if there’s anything more disgusting than black knot fungus, and will not cross the footbridge. The dusk sky this time of year always reminds me of a recurring dream I had when I was boy, a dream that I lived deep in a well, was covered in sleek fur and could only see the dimmest of glows from the opening of well. I was not allowed outside the well, but I yearned for nothing greater than to be closer to that glow, and so I would crawl the slippery walls, trying to find purchase between the cracks in the stones. With each dream I would get closer, only to slide back down the wet moss. Eventually, of course, I did make it to the top, my pale hands bloodied, my eyes blinded. I pulled myself over, lay flat on the soil, leaves and twigs stuck to my belly. I dragged myself farther from the well, frightened of death but eager to see what was beyond. I was cold and I knew I would have to return to the well to survive, but I needed to see! When I finally pulled myself over the rise I saw another glow, as dim and blinding as the glow from the top of the well, it was behind trees and falling, trembling even, and I could no longer keep my eyes open.
I don’t know why such a ridiculous dream would remain so vivid after all these years, but when I walk through the woods its presence, like a shadow, follows me. Marissa, as you know, believes that souls of the dead move with the wind, and that they are slowed in forests, caught like airy fish in a supernatural net.
What, I wonder, was N. doing at the edge of our forest, so near the highway? We did not expect to see him there. He lives in a penthouse in the city centre, so why would we expect to see him there? We had been talking about past gatherings chez H., the time we all wore masks and you, H., lead us through a maze of mannequins, and servers were ordered not to move until you snapped your fingers, and how it made us shiver, and Marissa said do you hear that, and I heard it too. Her hand gripped mine tightly, H., squeezed like a vice, and what we heard was breathing and another sound with the breathing, higher pitched. I swear if someone had come up behind and us and had said boo we would have flown in a hundred different directions, leaving nothing but our shoes! Is it coming from over there? Marissa asked, angling her head only slightly to her left. But it was so hard to see. The setting sun was cutting brilliant knife-like shafts through the pines. We squinted, leaned forward with hands shading our eyes, yet we still could not be certain. I asked my wife if she wanted me to investigate but she thought that was silly, since there was nothing there. But I did hear something, she said.
We started to walk, and we heard it again, a sound of forest floor being disturbed, something struggling, kicking, and then a sound, a sigh. But not an easy sigh, H., it was fearful, exasperated. No, said Marissa, it’s not from the highway. Something’s there, she said, and let go of my hand and began to approach the source of the sound. She entered a shaft of shadow and vanished. She stopped walking. Why, H., he couldn’t have been more than ten feet from us!
Come here, she told me.
It was N., sitting against a tree, his knees to chest, his head between knees. But when my eyes adjusted to the changing light, I saw that he was not sitting leisurely, not taking a break while wandering through the forest in his grey suit and burgundy tie, for his left ankle was wet, his argyle sock shredded and bits of skin and flesh were hanging about his bloodied shoes. The wind picked up and there was a chill in the air. Marissa, wearing only short sleeves, wrapped her arms around her chest. I buttoned the collar of my light coat and shifted from foot to foot. We were greatly aware of the passing time, H., and above the sounds of N’s breathing someone’s stomach was creating a terrible din.
How can we truly explain what happened? How can we ask for forgiveness? You who have treated us so splendidly over the years, who have always welcomed us with arms open, ready to engulf our needy selves. We lied, yes, and we avoided your eyes, and we were not good dinner guests at all, and when we heard you ask K. if he had heard from N., we only retreated deeper into our dim little corner, drinking too much of your spirits, wolfing down another canapé. When we applauded your singing of “Moon River,” your tender touches on the ivory keys, our minds were elsewhere. We saw our wide paths home through the night, and we were ashamed. He will never forgive us, Marissa hissed.
There was nothing we could do.
Our eyes adjusted. His left ankle was caught in a wire snare, and if Marissa, tiny Marissa, made even the slightest attempt to approach him the snare would glint in the sunlight and he would retreat, gasp in pain. How his leg trembled! And his eyes – well, we now realize he couldn’t see us at all! He in sun, and we in shadow, we must’ve frightened him to no end. And he’d mutter to himself, go through his pockets, search for a cigarette, run his hands through is hair, then suddenly scramble around the tree again.
We felt we did not know him, H. You must believe that. If someone had asked us who is this man? we could not have told them. And yet it was, without a doubt, N. We do not know what he was doing there, along the path to our home. It wasn’t right. We stepped back into the sunlight and continued, pausing only once when Marissa was certain she’d heard a shout, a short, sharp holler, but I told me wife I hadn’t heard a thing, said we were going to be late, it’s nearly dark, my love, and crossing the highway will be treacherous, the pines cast tricky shadows this time of year and one can’t judge the speed of the traffic. Why, when we returned, I twice had to grab Marissa and pull her close, else she would have lain under the grill of some massive, roaring beast!
Speaking of which, the night is cooling, the sun is setting, and she is not home. I think I’ll wander up the path and call her name, wait, and call her name again if she does not come running. I do love to see her running.
Oh, and one last thing, my dear friend, before I forget. I believe it was the substitution of button mushrooms with chanterelles that made all the difference in the coq au vin. Dazzling. Who but you could have thought that a lowly fungus could add so much to the tongue’s weary pallet?
With great apology, humbly awaiting your next summons,
Simon and Marissa