Skip to main content
Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Last Book Party

Karen Dukess

Henry Holt and Co.

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

part one

June 1987



1



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.

He led me through the porch and inside, where the furniture had been pushed back to the walls and the rugs rolled up. A younger crowd was dancing barefoot in the living room and dining room. The kitchen was filled with people standing in small groups or sitting on counters, drinking beer and talking. Everyone seemed happy to see Franny, grabbing his hand or tousling his hair or swallowing him in a hug. A little girl scampered up and wrapped her arms around his waist, squeezing until he swept her up onto his shoulders and danced around the kitchen. When he set her down, she skipped away, and he turned to a short, wrinkled old woman with her gray hair knotted in a bun on the top of her head. She had paint on her hands and Birkenstocks peeking out from beneath a long black skirt. Franny rested his hands on her shoulders and, leaning in and talking loudly so she could hear him over the music, promised to come soon to photograph her work.

Franny introduced me to some friends and cousins as “a writer friend of Henry’s from New York,” which everyone accepted so readily that I gave up trying to explain over the music that I was a mere editorial secretary. As much as I wanted to be a writer, my habit of starting stories and ripping them up after a few pages didn’t give me the right to call myself one.

“This is Rosie Atkinson—video artist,” Franny said, kissing the cheek of a petite young woman with a jet-black bob and magenta lips. “How goes the installation?” Before she could answer, a cherubic guy wearing round glasses and a faded Brooks Brothers shirt grabbed Franny from behind, bellowing, “Franster!”

Franny whipped around.

“My man!” They hugged again. “Eve, remember this name—Stephen Frick. This goofy-looking creature is on a fast track to becoming a famous composer.”

Creativity was clearly this crowd’s currency. Franny’s introductions each included some artistic cachet: Up-and-coming playwright. Jazz saxophonist. Gallery manager. Actor. There didn’t seem to be a preprofessional among them—none of the law school or med school students, junior consultants, or account executives found among the children of my parents’ friends. From years of vacationing in Truro, I’d been vaguely aware of this crowd, but never expected to be hanging out with them, let alone being welcomed as if I belonged.

The party had an easy, unscripted feel. Two barefoot boys in overalls ran through the kitchen, one with a bag of marshmallows. Three women sat on the steep wooden steps of the back staircase engaged in what seemed to be serious conversation. I grabbed a Corona from an old washtub on the counter and took a few quick gulps. Someone turned up the music, and Franny started dancing as he gently pushed me and several of the people in the kitchen into the dining room. At first, I danced awkwardly, wishing I hadn’t worn a prissy cotton dress. But as I finished that first beer, I began to relax. I kicked my sandals into the corner and twirled into the center of the room, where I was happy to catch Franny’s eyes a few times and be spun by him, though I wasn’t sure if he was dancing with me or with everyone. As it grew darker, more people came inside until the house was packed.

In the living room, Henry danced with a slim, long-necked woman in a floor-length halter dress patterned with swirls of orange and green, her graying hair swinging in a thick braid down her back. I assumed she was his wife, Tillie Sanderson, whose poems I had tried to understand when I was at Brown. Henry and Tillie and the rest of the older set looked loose and happy in a way that made them seem not only younger than my own parents, though they were ostensibly the same age, but ageless, as if being artists and writers freed them from anything as conventional as growing old. Henry and Tillie, laughing, looked like they were doing “the bump.” I tried to imagine my parents dancing to the Talking Heads or doing the bump, but it was impossible. Just then Franny appeared and grabbed my hands.

“What’s so funny?” he asked, spinning me beneath his arms.

“This,” I said. It was clear he had no idea what I was talking about.

Once every summer, my parents had a party too. Instead of barefoot dancing, rolled-up rugs, and old women in Birkenstocks, a cocktail party hosted by my parents demanded a strict headcount, from which would be calculated the number of mini quiches required to guarantee four per person; tailored summer outfits purchased at Filene’s in the Chestnut Hill mall; and, in every bathroom, freshly ironed embroidered hand towels and trays of soaps shaped like scallop shells.

I had been vacationing in Truro since I was a child, and each summer was as predictable as the tides. On sunny days, we would go to Ballston Beach, where we would spread our blankets to the right of the entrance, never the left. If the ocean was stinky with mung, we would go to Corn Hill to swim in the bay, where, when the wind died, it was easy to skip a flat rock six times over the water’s glassy surface. My parents would unfold beach chairs and read: my mother multigenerational, from-the-shtetl-to-Scarsdale family sagas, my father the latest Book of the Month Club presidential biography or the stock tables. My brother, Danny, and I would dive for fiddler crabs or swim. The pattern adjusted, without really changing, as we got older. Instead of frolicking in the water, I would lose myself in novels while Danny tackled the problems in the Mathematical Games columns in Scientific American.

On the last night of our vacation, we would buy lobsters and boil them in a big black pot. When we returned home to Newton, we’d shake the sand from our beach clothes and, like someone had flicked a switch, restart our old routine: work, school, dinner at six, my parents’ praise for Danny’s genius at math, and their gentle annoyance with my dreamy bookishness. This mold, set so long ago, endured.

Even now, my parents obsessed about Danny’s trajectory through grad school at MIT, their hopes for familial greatness fully staked on him, while they waited for me to abandon my dream of becoming a writer and buckle down to go to law school or get a teaching degree. Lately, I also had been doubting my path, wondering how I could be serious about an ambition that had yet to yield results more notable than the piles of paper scattered about my room.

But watching Franny dance, his long hair flipping around him, I was buoyed by a sense of possibility. A tentative belief that I could have a creative life too. It was intoxicating to have spun my way into Franny’s orbit and this other Truro. And now that I had, I didn’t want to let it go.



2



Late the next morning, I awoke to the drippings of a rain that had passed through while I slept. A thick fog hung in the air, hiding the marsh and the harbor beyond. The way it surrounded the house, blurring the view outside, added to my sense that the night before had been a dream, leaving me with vivid yet unconnected images: being swept into an improvised tango by an old man who looked like Albert Einstein; crowding onto the screened porch when Henry recited a creepy yet mesmerizing old poem, “The Cremation of Sam McGee”; wandering the second floor in search of a bathroom and coming upon Henry and Tillie’s bedroom, which was adorned with so many half-burned candles that it looked like a shrine.

On the way downstairs to our kitchen, I heard my mother on the phone.

“Yes, the Head of the Summer party. Yes, head—like Head Of The Charles, I think. I suppose it’s their idea of humor. No, I didn’t get details. She came in very late.”

My mother would want to hear about the party but would probably feign only mild interest. She hadn’t hidden her surprise that I’d been invited—in fact, she’d made it clear that she thought Henry had extended the invitation without the expectation I would go. Her reaction was in keeping with her odd fascination—she was both enamored and scornful—with Henry and Tillie’s crowd.

When I’d begun working at Hodder, Strike, she’d seemed impressed by my connection to Henry. But she never failed to tell me when she’d read something about The New Yorker having passed its prime. She sent me articles about the recent ousting of legendary editor William Shawn, circling with a red pen where Henry was cited as an example of how stale and indulgent much of the magazine’s writing had become. Just recently, she’d told me with barely disguised glee that Henry’s three-part series on the interstate highway system had been brutally ridiculed in Spy magazine.

“They said that he’s never met a fact he didn’t fall in love with, that he’s infactuated,” she’d said.

“Since when do suburban interior decorators read Spy?” I’d asked.

She’d frowned at my jab. “I like to stay current.” And then, “A client of mine gave it to me. Her son-in-law sells ad space in Spy.”

When I walked into the kitchen, my mother was off the phone. On the table was a basket of blueberry muffins.

“Nice time last night?” she asked, putting plates in the dishwasher.

“Very.” I poured a cup of coffee and went outside onto the deck to avoid her questions. I would give her some details later, but for now I wanted to savor the sense of being at the party. It was a rare experience for me to want to stay at a party rather than leave early to go home and read.

The fog was lifting slowly, revealing the hills of wild grass and bearberry that rolled down to the marsh, where soon enough I could see grayish pools of water and feathery islands of grass. As I sipped my coffee, the houses on the other side of the marsh came into view, emerging from the mist like images sharpening on a Polaroid. I loved how kindly the weather changed on mornings like this, as if sparing you the shock of awakening into a bright, clear day and instead taking your hand and gently guiding you from the cloud of sleep.

A car pulled into the gravel driveway; my mother’s ride had arrived, and she’d be leaving for her aerobics class in Wellfleet, which meant I could go inside for breakfast without being interrogated. When I heard the front door close, I went into the kitchen.

As I peeled the paper from a muffin, my mother poked her head back inside. She looked as orderly as ever, a pink terry headband keeping her dark hair in place. “Dad’s out fishing. Be a love and pick up some skim milk and a bottle of olive oil. You can check out Jams; it’s quite nice.”

I was surprised to hear a good word about Jams, which had been disparaged by several people at the party for its high prices and unfortunate catering to the growing contingent of “yuppie” families summering in Truro. There was a lot of nostalgia in town for Schoonejongen’s, the dusty old general store that Jams had replaced, and widespread disappointment, which I shared, that the battered old post office on the hill, with its FBI Most Wanted posters by the door, had been closed and relocated to a bland box of a building next to Jams. These changes were not seen as improvements, at least by summer people, though complaining about Schooney’s, as the old store was known, had been a Truro ritual for decades.

It had been impossible to shop at Schooney’s without being barked at by Ellie Schoonejongen, a doughy woman with thinning, white-blond hair who spent her days slumped by the cash register complaining that customers bought either too much or too little. Once, when my mother and I stopped by to get fruit for the beach, Ellie shrieked, “Only three peaches? Take four!” When my mother took another peach to appease her, Ellie sneered and said under her breath that there was no price too high for summer people to pay. Truro’s seasonal crowd embraced the unpretentiousness of Schooney’s, as they did the irony of the TRURO CENTER sign on Route 6, which marked the tiny settlement of a handful of buildings—the slightly rundown shingled building that was now home to Jams, the institutional-looking post office, a small Realtor’s office that handled summer rentals, and an unassuming news shop called Dorothy’s, whose most important purpose was ensuring that every summer visitor who so desired could get a copy of the Sunday New York Times.

What drew people to Truro was its unspoiled and open beauty. Just south of Provincetown, with its gay bars, restaurants, and art galleries, Truro was Cape Cod’s most rural town, with well over half of it containing the vast protected forests, sand dunes, and empty ocean beaches of the Cape Cod National Seashore. The rest of the town, which stretched only a few miles from the ocean to the calmer waters of the Cape Cod Bay, was marsh and rolling hills and winding roads, some paved and some little more than rutted dirt paths, along which were simple saltbox houses and newer summer homes.

When I opened the screen door to Jams, I caught a whiff of the sweet smell of fresh-baked pastries. The store was bright and clean, with buttery, wide-plank wooden floors. Along with staple groceries, the shelves now held luxuries like Camembert and Brie, marinated artichokes, and imported olives. A deli had been added in back, which offered rotisserie chickens, baguettes, and a menu of sandwiches named for Truro beaches: the Corn Hill, for the spot where, as every Truro resident knew, Myles Standish and his band of Pilgrims landed before heading to Plymouth, was turkey with coleslaw. Watching fit women with bright rattan beach bags order cold Chicken Marbella and pasta salad with pesto, I understood why my mother liked Jams and why the night before Henry had pronounced that he would never step foot in the place.

After locating milk and olive oil, I circled the store again, hoping I might run into Franny, which I knew was as unlikely as my standing a chance with him. He was clearly something of a ladies’ man, but I couldn’t help wanting to see him again. It wasn’t just his beautiful eyes and smile or the casual way he had grabbed me to dance. It was also his warmth and instant acceptance of me into the fold that had made me feel aglow, as if I had not only belonged at the party, but might become the writer he’d thought I already was. I wanted to be back in that house, but with all the guests gone. Brimming with books and magazines, paintings and photographs, the house was filled with items chosen because they were beloved and had a cherished story to tell, not because they matched the rest of the décor.

Before heading back home, I pulled over at the Cobb Memorial Library, just up the road from Truro Center. Alva Snow, the town’s longtime librarian, was one of my favorite people in Truro. Alva, who looked much younger than her seventy-two years, had lived in Truro her whole life. She knew everything about everyone, not just the permanent residents but also the summer people, whom she called “wash ashores.” For most of my childhood, I had regarded Alva much as I had the one-room library’s old furniture, which was worn, comfortable, and not particularly memorable. But the summer before I left for college, after she noted that I was one of the few people who visited the library on sunny days as well as on rainy days, Alva and I began to have longer conversations, which were always rambling and fun. We talked about books, of course, which may be why I felt more comfortable with Alva than with most of the high school girls I knew, who were more interested in discussing television shows like Dallas. Alva loved the detective novels of Ngaio Marsh and P. D. James and nineteenth-century French poetry, while I liked getting lost in long novels of varying literary repute, everything from The Thorn Birds to My Ántonia. For a librarian, not to mention one getting on in years, Alva could be surprisingly girlish and silly. The summer after my freshman year, we talked about how much we wanted to believe the apocryphal story that the mayor of Providence, Buddy Cianci, planned to marry someone named Nancy Ann, so that she could be introduced in the Rhode Island Statehouse as “the esteemed Nancy Ann Cianci.” Every time we said this, we collapsed in laughter, with Alva once giggling so much she began to hiccup uncontrollably.

When I walked into the musty library, Alva was at her desk gently trying to pry apart two pages of a picture book.

“Should I come back later—or will the impending diatribe against the evils of chewing gum be brief?”

Alva put down the book and smiled.

“I was wondering when you would show up. Please tell me you have finally arranged to spend an entire summer here.”

“Nope, just a long weekend,” I said, sitting in the wooden rocking chair beside her desk. “I came up for a party at Henry Grey’s. First time I ever met him. Tell me: How did I not know he had a son?”

Alva took off her glasses and let them hang from the chain around her neck. She folded her hands on the desk and leaned toward me.

“The plot thickens,” she said.

“What do you know about him?”

“He was a delightful child, as I recall. He was not much of a reader, however, but was quite the artist. He had his first exhibit of photographs in this very room when he was fifteen. Portraits of fishermen that he printed himself. Not a bad eye.”

“Not bad to look at either,” I said.

“You know what they say about judging a book by its cover,” Alva said, with a sly smile.

“Because you’re a librarian, I’ll let you get away with that.”

Remembering the milk in my car, I told Alva I had to leave to get my groceries home. In response, she took an old hardcover from a stack of books on her desk, opened the back cover, and stamped the “due by” card on the last page. It was one of my favorites, I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith.

“How do you always do that?” I asked, flipping through the pages. “I read this years ago and absolutely loved it.”

I stretched out my hand to return the book, but she didn’t take it. She put her glasses back on and peered over them at me, saying, “Well, then, you’ll enjoy reading it again.”


Copyright © 2019 by Karen Dukess