Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

The Dinner Party

Joshua Ferris

  The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.

  Copyright © 2017 by Joshua Ferris

  Cover design by Gregg Kulick

  Cover copyright © 2017 by Hachette Book Group, Inc.

  Hachette Book Group supports the right to free expression and the value of copyright. The purpose of copyright is to encourage writers and artists to produce the creative works that enrich our culture.

  The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book without permission is a theft of the author’s intellectual property. If you would like permission to use material from the book (other than for review purposes), please contact [email protected] Thank you for your support of the author’s rights.

  Little, Brown and Company

  Hachette Book Group

  1290 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10104

  First ebook edition: May 2017

  Little, Brown and Company is a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc. The Little, Brown name and logo are trademarks of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

  The publisher is not responsible for websites (or their content) that are not owned by the publisher.

  The Hachette Speakers Bureau provides a wide range of authors for speaking events. To find out more, go to or call (866) 376-6591.

  These stories originally appeared, sometimes in different form, or with different titles, in the following publications: “The Dinner Party,” “The Valetudinarian,” “The Pilot,” “Fragments” (as “The Fragment”), “The Breeze,” and “The Stepchild” (as “The Abandonment”) in The New Yorker; “Ghost Town Choir” in Prairie Schooner; “A Night Out” in Tin House; “More Abandon” in Best New American Voices 2005, “Life in the Heart of the Dead” in Ploughshares; and “A Fair Price” in VICE.

  “The Valetudinarian” was reprinted in The Best American Short Stories 2010. “The Breeze” was reprinted in The Best American Short Stories 2014. “Ghost Town Choir” was reprinted in New Stories from the South: The Year’s Best 2007.

  ISBN 978-0-316-46597-7

  Table of Contents


  Title Page



  The Dinner Party

  The Valetudinarian

  The Pilot

  A Night Out

  The Breeze

  Ghost Town Choir

  More Abandon (Or Whatever Happened to Joe Pope?)


  The Stepchild

  Life in the Heart of the Dead

  A Fair Price


  About the Author

  Also by Joshua Ferris


  For Cooper Ferris and Jim Shepard

  The Dinner Party

  On occasion, the two women went to lunch and she came home offended by some pettiness. And he would say, “Why do this to yourself?” He wanted to shield her from being hurt. He also wanted his wife and her friend to drift apart so that he never had to sit through another dinner party with the friend and her husband. But after a few months the rift would heal and the friendship return to good standing. He couldn’t blame her. They went back a long way, and you got only so many good friends.

  He leapt four hours ahead of the evening and saw, in future retrospect, that he could predict every gesture, every word. He walked back to the kitchen and stood with a new drink in front of the fridge, out of her way. “I can’t do it,” he said.

  “Can’t do what?”

  The balls were up in the air: water coming to a boil on the stove, meat seasoned on the butcher block. She stood beside the sink dicing an onion. Other vegetables, bright and doomed, waited their turn on the counter. She stopped cutting long enough to lift her arm to her eyes in a tragic pose. Then she resumed, more tearfully. She wasn’t drinking her wine.

  “I can tell you everything that will happen from the moment they arrive to the little kiss on the cheek goodbye, and I just can’t goddamn do it.”

  “You could stick your tongue down her throat instead of the kiss goodbye,” she offered casually as she continued to dice. She was game, his wife. She spoke to him in bad taste freely, and he considered it one of her best qualities. “But then that would surprise her, I guess, not you.”

  “They come in,” he said, “we take their coats. Everyone talks in a big hurry, as if we didn’t have four long hours ahead of us. We self-medicate with alcohol. A lot of things are discussed, different issues. Everyone laughs a lot, but later no one can say what exactly was so witty. Compliments on the food. A couple of monologues. Then they start to yawn, we start to yawn. They say, ‘We should think about leaving, huh?’ and we politely look away, like they’ve just decided to take a crap on the dinner table. Everyone stands, one of us gets their coats, peppy goodbyes. We all say what a lovely evening, do it again soon, blah-blah-blah. And then they leave and we talk about them and they hit the streets and talk about us.”

  “What would make you happy?” she asked.

  “A blow job.”

  “Let’s wait until they get here for that,” she said.

  She slid her finger along the blade to free the clinging onion. He handed her her glass. “Drink your wine,” he said. She took a sip. He left the kitchen.

  He sat on the sofa and resumed reading his magazine. Then he got up and returned to the kitchen and poured himself a new drink.

  “That’s another thing,” he said. “Their big surprise. Even their goddamn surprises are predictable.”

  “You need to act surprised for their sake,” she said.

  “Wait for a little opening,” he said, “a little silence, and then he’ll say, he’ll be very coy, he’ll say, ‘Why don’t you tell them?’ And she’ll say, ‘No, you,’ and he’ll say, ‘No, you,’ and then she’ll say, ‘Okay, okay, I’ll tell them.’ And we’ll take in the news like we’re genuinely surprised—like, holy shit, can you believe she’s knocked up, someone run down for a Lotto ticket, someone tell Veuve Clicquot, that bastard will want to know. And that’s just the worst, how predictable our response to their so-called news will be.”

  “Well, okay,” she said. “When that happens, why don’t you suggest they have an abortion?”

  He chewed his ice and nodded. “That would shake things up, wouldn’t it?”

  “Tell them we can do it right here with a little Veuve Clicquot and one of the bedroom hangers.”

  “Delightful,” he said. “I’m in.”

  The kitchen was small. He would have done better to remain in one of the other rooms, but he wanted to be with her. She was sautéing the garlic and the onion.

  “He’s okay,” he said. “They’re both okay. I’m just being a dick.”

  “We do this, what—at most, once or twice a year. I think you can handle it. And when they have the baby—”

  “Oh, Christ.”

  “When they have the baby, we’ll see even less of them.”

  “Holiday cards. Here’s our little sun-chine. See our little sun-chine? Christ.”

  “You aren’t the one who’s going to have to go to the baby shower,” she said.

  “How much you wanna bet they buy a stroller?”

  “A stroller?”

  “Yeah, a stroller,” he said. He put cheese on a cracker. “To cart the baby around in.”

  “I’m going to wager the odds of a stroller are high,” she said. “But you, if you had a baby, there’d be no stroller, am I right? Because it would be oh so predictable to have a stroller, wouldn’t it.”

  “I was thinking we
could duct-tape the child,” he said. “It would be cheaper.”

  “Like a BabyBjörn, but duct tape.”


  “Would the baby face in or out?”

  “If it was sleeping, in. Not sleeping, kind of kicking its feet, wanting to see the world, duct-tape it out, so it has a view.”

  “Allowing the child to be curious,” she said. “Feeding its desire to marvel at this new experience called life.”

  “Something like that.”

  “The child must be so relieved that I’m barren,” she said.

  He left the kitchen. He stood in the living room with his drink, listening to the sounds of her cooking.

  They should have invited Ben and Lauren, too, like last time. Ben and Lauren were more his friends. With Ben and Lauren there, time didn’t move as it did in funeral parlors and in the midwestern churches of his youth. But she had wanted it just the four of them this time, probably so that they could more freely revel in their big news, and there was a limit to how many times he could say, unprompted, “Hey, should we invite Ben and Lauren?” At least he was doing Ben and Lauren a favor.

  He returned to the kitchen. “When they come in,” he said, “let’s make them do a shot, both of them.”

  “A shot?”

  “Of tequila.”

  “Her, too?”

  “Both of them.”

  “To sort of…fortify the baby.”

  “We’ll force them somehow,” he said. “I’ll figure it out.”

  “Better hurry,” she said.

  “All this talk of folic acid and prenatal vitamins. Give me a break. Do they think Attila the Hun got his daily dose of folic acid when he was in the womb? Napoleon?” She was going back and forth across the kitchen while he kept his drink close. “I could go on.”

  “George Washington,” she said, “a Founding Father.”

  “See? I could go on. Moses.”

  “I don’t think she’s going to be willing to do a shot,” she said.

  “We trick her somehow. Tell her it’s full of prenatal vitamins, and she shoots it down.”

  “Because she just graduated from the third grade,” she said, “and she’s blind and retarded.”

  “I’ll think of something,” he said.

  He left the kitchen again. On his way back in, he said, “Okay, I’ve got it.”

  But the kitchen was empty. Her wedding ring and the one with the diamond were on the counter, where she always put them before starting to cook. The sink had filled with dishes. On the stove, the big pot and the smaller one unfurled steam into the rattling vent. The door under the sink hung open.

  “Amy?” he said. No answer. Where was she? He turned and walked back the way he came, through the apartment, in the unlikely event that she had passed by without his noticing as he was lying on the sofa. Then he returned to the kitchen, to the animated appliances and stewing ingredients. She came in through the front door.

  “Where’d you go?”

  “Took the garbage out,” she said.

  “I would have done that.”

  “But you didn’t,” she said.

  He had come into the kitchen with a whole new approach to the evening, but after she went missing, he was no longer in the mood to provoke her. Instead, he set his drink down and went up to her at the stove. He threaded his arms around her waist as she stirred one of the pots. Years earlier, they’d had a name for this hug. He couldn’t remember what it was now. He kissed her neck, then the back of her hair. Her hair smelled of steam and shampoo and fake wildflowers. “What can I do?” he said.

  “You can set the table,” she said.

  He set the table. Then he stood with his back to the refrigerator and with a new drink. “So I’ve figured it out,” he resumed. “They bring the bottle of wine, right? We thank them, but we don’t open it. We tuck it away in the kitchen. They never see it again. We start the evening. We don’t ask them what they want to drink. Like it’s just an oversight on our part. Because I know him. Even if she’s not drinking because of the big news, he’ll want a drink. I tell him we ran out. I tell him we’ll open their wine at dinner. But then we don’t. We just have water for the table. Then, in the middle of the meal—”

  “No alcohol,” she said. “You should work for al-Qaeda.”

  “—in the middle of the meal, I get up and go to the kitchen and I bring back a beer for myself. I open it at the table and take a long drink. What do you think?”

  “Sounds promising.”

  “He says, ‘Hey, got another one of those?’ and I’m like, ‘Oh, actually, this is the last one.’ And then I kill it. Do you think they would leave?”

  “Leave? No.”

  “Really? They wouldn’t leave after that? Where the hell are they, anyway?”

  “They might never come back, but no. They would not leave.”

  “You know, they’re good people,” he said. “Ultimately.”

  “She’s my oldest friend,” she said. “And he can be very funny.”

  “You’re right, he can be funny.”

  Later, he came out of the bathroom just as the toilet was completing its roar. She was no longer in the kitchen. He took another cheese and cracker. He walked past the dressed table to the living room. She sat on the sofa reading the same magazine he had been reading. He stood in the middle of the room and held out his hands. “Where are they?”

  “If there’s one thing that’s predictable,” she said, “it’s her running late.”

  “Sure, but it’s going on forty-five minutes.”

  “They’ll be eating some very cold appetizers.”

  “Have you cooked the meat?”

  “Everything but.”

  She casually flipped through the magazine. There was no outrage or impatience. She seemed resigned to waiting as long as it took.

  “You should maybe call her,” he said.

  “Isn’t this what you wanted?” she asked. “Something unpredictable?”

  She was on the phone, calling around. It was nine o’clock, and then it was ten, going on ten thirty. She tried to reach them a dozen times in a dozen different ways. She sent texts and emails. They didn’t pick up and they didn’t reply.

  “Not when it interferes with dinner,” he said.

  “Nice,” she said. “Magnanimous and humane.”

  “Listen, don’t worry about those fucking drips,” he said. “They have fallen asleep watching Friends on DVD, for which they have locked their doors and silenced their phones.”

  “Yes?” she said. She was speaking into the phone now. “Okay, thank you. Can you take my number just in case one of them comes in? Thank you.” She left her name and number and hung up.

  “Is it really possible,” she said. She was dialing the next number. “Is it really possible that you care about no one but yourself?”

  “I’m trying to be helpful.”

  “Your help isn’t worth a good goddamn anymore,” she said.

  He didn’t like to be reminded. He left the room. “Sure,” she said to the phone. “I love to hold.”

  “Is this meat going bad?” he called out. He was in the kitchen. He had finished the cheese and crackers, the mini caprese salad she’d made with grape tomatoes, and the figs wrapped in bacon, caramelized with a homemade glaze. Now he was sitting on a bar stool eating a saucer of the mushroom risotto that was meant to go with the lamb, while staring at the meat on the butcher block. He had opened another bottle of wine. “Hey, babe, this meat? Should we do something with this meat?”

  “Stick it up your ass,” she said.

  He stopped chewing. He looked with raised eyebrows at the two mustard-seasoned racks of lamb and thought how unpleasant it would be to insert one of their bony ribs into his butthole, but how much fun to walk out into the next room and moon her with a rack of lamb between his cheeks. “Stick it up my ass, huh,” he said. “You know who should stick it up…whose asses…up whose asses it should be stuck up is, are your two friends o
f yours, their asses. They should stick it up their asses,” he said.

  Another hospital had no record, either, and again she left her name and number. She walked into the kitchen. “What are you muttering?”

  “There are two racks there, one for each of their asses.”

  She put her fingertip on his forehead. “This isn’t like them,” she said, pushing his head back, “and you know it’s not like them, and you’re not being helpful.” She released him, and he sprang back on the stool to an upright position.

  “I’m sorry, am I supposed to be helpful?” he said. “Because I thought my help was no longer worth a good goddamn.”

  She left the room.

  “Wait,” he said. He dropped the risotto to the counter and got off the stool. “Hold on.” He followed her through the dining room. “Obviously, I’m not saying—will you stop? will you listen to me, please?—that I don’t want to be helpful. Will you please turn around and listen?” She stopped and turned. “They just got their dates wrong, is all,” he said, “and tomorrow, when they call, they’ll tell you how sorry they are. They had to turn their phones off during the late showing of Kung Fu Panda or something.”

  “So they went to see Kung Fu Panda tonight,” she said.

  “Something like that.”

  “My adult friends went to see Kung Fu Panda tonight, and they turned their phones off so they wouldn’t ring during Kung Fu Panda. ”

  “Or,” he said. “Or.” He put up a finger. They were standing near the bedroom doorway. There was dim light coming from the dark room and he was suddenly irrationally afraid, as he had been as a child, that if anyone stepped inside, if she stepped inside, she would plummet to the center of the earth. He lowered his finger. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t think they went to see Kung Fu Panda.”

  “You do not think, period,” she said.

  She stepped inside the bedroom. She did not plummet down but floated across the murk into the bathroom. She waited until the door was shut before switching on the light.

  He sat on the kitchen floor for thirty minutes. Then he said, “Hey!” He got no response. He stood and went into the bedroom.

  He found her in bed. She was in her pajamas. She was propped up against the headboard, reading a book in the lamplight. “What are you doing?”