“A Dinner Party in Town”

Fiction by Kay Kidde

   C­arrie almost missed the train. Had she not been quite so arresting — dark brown eyes, dark brown hair setting off her classic features — the conductor might well have waved the train on. She thanked him, scurried up, and collapsed into the first seat that would offer a view of the Hudson River. To think again of Teddy, wailing as she left. He was one, and she’d never left him for much over a few hours. But 3-year-old Kenny had taken to the highly recommended teenage sitter from the start.
    Ken was his father’s little man, stouthearted and demanding. Vulnerable, just-learning-to-laugh Teddy was hers. And they were one handful. As was their father, Jim.  Sometimes she dreamt that the boys had taken over the house, were truly trashing it.
    She breathed deeply; tonight was a command performance dinner at the Scotts’, the Park Avenue apartment of Jim’s boss. It was the first time Carrie had been out to speak of since young Teddy was born. Jim had told Carrie that there would be six at the table, cocktails at 7, tonight. The host, Scottie, ran the small ad agency to which Jim commuted diligently, sometimes putting in overtime.  Scottie’s wife was known as Mrs. S. Carrie had never met the Scotts. She had rather liked Matt, the art man, at a cocktail party once. And the new secretary, Jean, Jim had told Carrie just this morning, was not a looker but efficient at her work. Carrie was wary of the evening. Even Mrs. S. was somehow involved in the agency, and Carrie scarcely knew a word of the terminology.
    Now the river, gray and an eerie green, embedded in midsummer trees, rambled on past the near reeds, refuse, and the occasional odd, unexplained building. Carrie wished she could spend the whole summer on Long Island, on Peconic Bay, again. Her parents had asked them for the last week of August, just. The boys were hard for them, alas.
    A familiar woman, an overweight blonde, got on at one of the clattering, metallic stops; she nodded pleasantly.  “Hullo, Carrie.”
    Carrie said, “How are you?” without knowing her name or where she’d met her.
    Carrie lived in a small wilderness of baby food containers, diapers, and little accidents with scattered toys now.  Chappaqua felt remote from most of the people she knew, but Jim had wanted it; for the “country,” the schools, his family nearby. And, of course, he was the breadwinner.  Her handsome, winsome, Jimmy. He didn’t want Jimmy, his childhood name, anymore, though. Just Jim now. When he was Jimmy, courting her, and when they were first married, he’d been tender, needy even. And funny. She was moved if he only touched her, then.
    But Carrie’s knowledge of the world, films, Jim’s areas, had waxed dim these days. Would that stand out at dinner tonight? Jim had laughed — in a gingerly way — at her ignorance of contemporary goings-on once or twice recently.
    Would she find out tonight if Jim was actually attracted by someone these days? Until the past few months, Jim, with a former reputation as something of a ladies’ man, had seemed pretty much tamed by the doings of Kenny and the baby, had been appreciative of Carrie’s almost good cooking, even her sometimes haphazard maintaining of the household. He would “do” Sunday supper, mostly cold cereal or canned soup, the dishes sometimes, work around the yard a bit. Even be solicitous of an occasional breakfast in bed, tea with lemon, scones, for her. Though he got in his golf Saturdays as a guest at his father’s club. . . . There wasn’t enough money for extras, really.
    But, she reflected not for the first time, and as the uninviting sprawl around the city grew, Jim seemed preoccupied at this point — something gave her to feel that a large part of him was concentrated elsewhere. She pondered Mrs. S. as an object of his interest; he mentioned her fairly often, she apparently played a fair part in the operation of the office. Jean seemed unlikely, since she wasn’t­ particularly attractive, evidently. A client? Maybe it was someone entirely outside his work. Perhaps it was no one at all, he was just agonizing over the accounts for which he was writing copy, etc. Or the bills at home. But she didn’t think so. She tried to assure herself that fantasies came and went, that a good deal of their marriage had been quite gratifying, that this was a baroque concern, like doctoring a minor scratch.
    However, Carrie had to admit that life for Jim now seemed very colorful, and hers, quite not. As the train screeched into the cavernous entrance to Grand Central, she worried that she and her limited world might now in fact be boring to her husband.
    A cab, won at the frantic station, brought her to the Scotts’ building, gated, a hard massive high rise, just a little early. She sat in the ornate lobby poring over a New Yorker for 15 minutes. Then Matt came by, spotted her, cordially escorted her up in the elevator to the penthouse.  Slender, refined, his light attention was a tonic.
    The apartment was furnished with contemporary, plush furniture in light colors, with contemporary, abstract, outsized art, but still seemed dark, as well as too perfect, certainly too ordered, to Carrie. Scott, a lumbering football player of a man with a slight limp, was very sweet. He made a great deal of Carrie, admiring her for coming, for looking so fresh. Mrs. S., while also welcoming, was fragile, and elegant.
    “Come out for our view,” she invited.
    The three seated themselves about the generous balcony overlooking the park, Scott doing the honors of cocktails. A maid brought out a tempting silver tray of hors d’oeuvres as they settled in. It was balmy, and the park was its usual, civilized, tarnished woodland, with trampled fields, crowds.
    Jean came out. She was actually nice looking, a beige blonde with an engaging smile, rather more constantly merry than was comfortable for Carrie.
    Jim then appeared, with his untamed brown hair over his forehead, his infectious bravado. “As you see, I simply can’t tear myself away from conjuring up great American copy,” he told one and all, kissing the top of Carrie’s head.
    Matt told Carrie, not entirely kidding, she thought, “Now I will have to play along with the outrageous artwork that copy doubtless calls for.”
    Carrie asked him, as the others laughed, then turned to each other, “Do you really get to paint in your work? I’m a painter myself.”
    Matt gave her a warm smile. “Usually I have to draft something first, then they tell me to come up with a dozen photographs, say. Or that it’s wrong, and to go back to the drawing board entirely. . . . Are you painting now?”
    Carrie said, “I can’t. I set up the easel, and Kenny — the oldest — falls and has to have first aid. Or a doctor.  Then I get to a sketch, and Teddy, the baby, wakes up, bawling. Somehow by then it’s time to get supper. Or, if it’s morning, clean the damn house.”
    Matt shook his head in empathy. “Makes the office seem like a breeze.”
    Carrie put forward, “Well, it’s not a constant disaster.  Maybe 80 percent of the time.”
    He chuckled. They both plucked smoked salmon and cream cheese on toast points from the enticing tray.
    Matt said, “I’m gay, but I don’t have any one person at this point. I like kids, but I think they’d drive me off a cliff. . . .”
    “The thing is I live in a small, isolated, part of the forest, as it were. Except for weekends with Jim, there’s no one around but the ancient lawn mower guy and a few stray dogs. Kenny is not ready yet to discuss modern art. Nor am I, actually.”
    “But it must be great when there are breakthroughs with the kids? When they learn to put sentences together, run fast, thank you for something?”
    “Oh, they’re very dear. But I really don’t have any friends there to speak of. Our house is actually rather far out of town. I can call my good friends in New York or wherever on the phone. But it’s not the same as having a drink with someone.”
    “I guess when they’re in school. . . .”
    “Yup. That’ll be different. You know, I was just starting to sell a few paintings when I got married. Kenny seemed practically to arrive a few minutes later, what with getting the house furnished and all. But before, I did dust jackets for a few publishers, too.”
    “Wow! Well, at least Jim is a standout in your life just now.”
    “He is that.”
    At the well-appointed mahogany table, the vichyssoise was excellent. Creamy, not too thick, with chives. Jim nodded across the peonies at her, acknowledging their mutual love of this soup.
    To her relief, Carrie was seated next to Matt again, with Scott and Mrs. S. at the heads of the table, Jean and Jim across from Carrie and Matt. At first, Carrie chatted with Scott.
    He gallantly told her, “I just know those boys are wonderful.” And Carrie could only thank him, couldn’t find it in her to tell him about her painting. His golf had been disappointing but “stimulating” to him on the weekend.
    As the roast beef came on, Carrie noticed that the maid, Bonnie, was making Mrs. S. nervous. Bonnie acted as though she’d been drinking a bit; her hands trembled some. The conversation now switched so that Scott spoke with Jean and Jim on his left, while Carrie and Matt focused on Mrs. S. to their right.
    Mrs. S. was saying how gratifying it was for her to play at least a small part at the agency. She oversaw some of the public relations, having met Scott in a PR firm. She had recently taken a huge celebrity to a baseball game.  Carrie had never heard of the celebrity.
    Matt said to Mrs. S., “I’ve just learned Carrie here is a painter. When her kids are a little older, maybe we could find out if she might try something in my area, on a freelance basis, possibly. She did jackets for publishers, and she’s sold paintings.”
    But Mrs. S. said, “I had no idea.” She was not an effusive woman. “What a nice thought.”
    A loud bark of laughter came from Jean directly across from Carrie. It looked as though Jim had gotten off a witty one. Scott was laughing, too. Why did Carrie feel some alarm at this? It was a party, after all. She ought to want her husband to succeed with his colleagues, his boss especially. But something intimate in Jean’s laugh sounded a warning bell to Carrie. She made herself dismiss it; of course they knew each other fairly well, working together all the time as they did.
    With the asparagus hollandaise, the talk in each group meandered on to politics, and then they all joined in together. But Carrie not only couldn’t contribute, she couldn’t­ really follow now. With elections not far off, some would-be governor in the Southwest had tipped his hand as being openly against blacks. Carrie thought she understood them to be saying that this man had probably ingratiated himself with his party — by making this intentional slip? She wanted to ask for some qualification, but was afraid to reveal her lack of knowledge, no matter how she phrased it. The others went on to cite outrageous blunders by several other candidates. Carrie didn’t even see The Times these days; by the time the nightly news came on, she was asleep.
    Jean seemed to take issue with some of Jim’s ideas, but deferentially. Once Carrie thought she heard her call him Jimmy.
    Matt continued to be solicitous of Carrie, as did Scottie. Did she want more butter? Another glass of wine? She answered them as graciously as she could; their attention seemed a little forced to her.
    Dessert was a lime sherbet. With a spread of rich chocolates.
    Mrs. S. announced along in here, “Since Jim and Carrie have to drive to Chappaqua tonight, and he has to work tomorrow, we’re having coffee here instead of in the living room. I hope that’s all right with you people. Anyone wanting a liqueur is cordially urged to have it, of course.”
    There was general appreciation of this, and the maid, Bonnie, came out to pass the demitasse coffee cups and saucers. The tray shook just slightly. She then began to pour coffee around for them. When she got to Jean, a spurt of the coffee ran down Jean’s bare arm.
    Jean stifled a shriek, Jim immediately said, “Jeanie,” tenderly, and touched her very slightly on her back, very quickly indeed.
    He immediately looked his guilt at Carrie, a dead giveaway. Never mind that the “Jeanie” was a term of endearment not used by the others.
    Something at the center of Carrie snapped.
     The table recovered quickly. Bonnie brought cold water and napkins. Jean seemed only to be slightly burned, and everyone acted as though any gentleman would have behaved as Jim had.
    On the drive home, neither Carrie nor Jim spoke. Carrie could not see any way out.

    Kay Kidde, the founder of the Kidde, Hoyt, & Picard Literary Agency in New York City, was a senior editor at the New American Library and Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. Her writing has been published in several collections.