Sunday, October 30, 2005

The Dinner Party

Arlene Schulman


The first time I attended a dinner party comprised of mostly writers took place about ten years ago. I showed up at the door waiting to be seated at a Dorothy Parker-type round table surrounded by witticisms and criticisms tossed about by literati glitterati drinking an endless supply of ruthless martinis and smoking cigarettes. The table turned out to be a long rectangle, a round of drinks might have helped, no one smoked, and the conversation didn’t exactly glitter from people who had published. The talk ranged from an alarmingly slow progression of yes-and-no answers to the sounds of forks clanging against plates like churchbells ringing across a desolate countryside. This other species didn’t speak to each other and didn’t even look at me so I knew it couldn’t be my complete lack of credentials or my overwhelming naivete. I wondered if this would be my last foray to a literary soiree.

“Have you been to Mexico?”, I asked the writer sitting next to me.

Okay, I had to start somewhere.

“No.”

He stared at his plate and listened to the clanging of the forks. That was our conversation. But I’m a New Yorker. I don’t give up easily. I butted into the chatter three writers over.

“Did you read the article in the New York Times today about birds regenerating their brains? Now they won’t have any problems!,” the woman cackled with hysterical enthusiasm.

The rest of the table held up their forks and wrinkled their foreheads in concentration as if they were studying The Periodic Table of Elements. The laugh erupted out of me like a car backfiring in the middle of a silent night.

“Problems? Problems?! What kind of problems? Like paying a mortgage or finding a job?,” I managed to force out.

A good laugh, I mean a really good laugh, forces my eyes to water and my body to shake - I could be holding onto the third rail. The poet sitting across from me managed to suppress his laughter into one small polite burble. I used the linen napkin to wipe my eyes and I clenched the table to catch my breath. The clanging of the forks took on a much faster tempo and was now accompanied by the sound of water poured into tall glasses. I clasped the napkin to my chest and got myself under control. I clanged my fork against my plate as I wrestled what may have been eggplant but I think was something else. In between tackles, I surveyed the writer sitting across from me: his brown hair that was obviously dyed jet black and he wore an affected rumpledness that one obtains after sitting for hours in Starbucks finishing that long awaited novel.

“So,” he asked gingerly. “Who’s your favorite writer?”

The forks stopped for a minute. Picture the silence before a winner is announced at the Academy Awards.

“James Thurber, of course!,” I exclaimed, hoping this would propel me into some sort of literary acceptance and intelligensia.

“Oh,” he replied, making a face like a bad odor had wafted across the table. “I read him in high school. He’s not contemporary anymore.”

“So what?”

Clang, clang went the forks. Yeah. So what? James Thurber ranks right there at the top as one of America’s greatest humorists. His work influenced generations of writers from Kurt Vonnegut to Joseph Heller, Garrison Keillor to David Sedaris. Thurber’s characters are eccentrics placed in real but exaggerated sets of circumstances and they’re tormented by each other in a gentle, humorous, ironic manner. His writing and sketches appeared in the New Yorker magazine beginning in 1927. Thurber wrote over 35 books, won a Tony Award for his play, The Thurber Carnival, and his short story, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, was adapted into a movie starring Danny Kaye in 1947. His books include Is Sex Necessary?, My World and Welcome to It, and The Thurber Album. Stories with titles like The Night the Bed Fell, More Alarms at Night, and The Dog that Bit People have entertained generations of readers. My favorite Thurber book is The Thurber Carnival which compiles his stories and cartoons from several books. I purchased a used copy a long time ago and it’s a small hardcover with its original dust jacket, compact enough to fit into my handbag or coat pocket. I’ve read it many times. In most of his stories, the wife is generally irritated by the husband she dominates but loves nonetheless. Thurber’s men are generally benign, like Mr. Martin in The Catbird Seat. Mr. Martin is an office worker, reliable, respected, and quiet who doesn’t even smoke or raise his voice. He drinks milk. A new co-worker is introduced and Mr. Martin dislikes her immediately. Mrs. Ulgine Barrows - with “her quacking voice and braying laugh” - terrorizes him for two years by shouting silly questions at him.

“Are you lifting the oxcart out of the ditch? Are you tearing up the pea patch? Are you hollering down the drain barrel? Are you scraping around the bottom of the pickle barrel? Are you sitting in the catbird seat?” “Boo!,” she would shout at him.

Mr. Martin plotted to rub her out. He followed her home one day and rang her doorbell. He sat down on her couch and hoped to find a weapon. He asked for a drink and started smoking her cigarettes. He insulted his boss and declared that he was coked to the gills. He left her apartment and arrived quietly and meekly at his desk the next day. Mrs. Barrows rolled in, yelling and complaining to his boss that Mr. Martin drank, smoked cigarettes, used drugs and showed up at her apartment. Mr. Martin, of course, denied all this and his boss knew it was completely out of character. Mrs. Barrows was hurriedly carted out and Mr. Martin returned to the peace and quiet of his office. In The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Walter Mitty is henpecked by his wife and he relieves himself of his misery by daydreaming. He’s inserted himself into a variety of scenarios, from flying a plane, to a life saving doctor, a crack shot with a gun interviewed on the witness stand, and facing the firing squad.

“I was thinking,” said Walter Mitty says to his wife. “Did it ever occur to you that I am sometimes thinking?” She looked at him. “I’m going to take your temperature when you get home,” she said.

In The Curb in the Sky, a woman finishes sentences for people. Poor Charlie thought he could change her and married her, against everyone’s warning.

“Once or twice, when I called on them or they called on me, Dorothy would let Charlie get almost to the climax of some interesting account or happening and then, like a tackler from behind, throw him just as he was about to cross the goal-line.”

Charlie knew this was a losing battle so he began telling stories about dreams he had, knowing that Dorothy could not know the ending. “They became the only life that he had that was his own.” Then he began to tell the same story over and over again. Dorothy never tired of correcting the ending. He ended up in a asylum where he told and retold the same story and Dorothy still corrected him. “He always gets his story wrong,” Dorothy said.

Thurber’s cartoons in simple strokes featured the war between the sexes. My favorite shows a man and woman in bed with the woman turning to the man and saying, “All right, have it your way - you heard a seal bark”. A seal is hanging not too discretely over the headboard. In another, a woman sits in a chair while her husband looks at a scrapbook with their son. He points out a photo, “And this is Tom Weatherby, an old beau of your mother’s. He never got to first base.”

I’ve read most of Thurber’s books. And through his sardonic eye, I’ve learned to look at people and circumstances with a rather ironic viewpoint which others might overlook or dismiss. Just the other day, a friend told me about her good friend who hired a cleaning lady. Somehow the cleaning lady wound up running all sorts of errands and accompanying her everywhere.

“I only want to be a cleaning lady,” she pleaded.

On her last trip out, she assisted her employer on her thrice weekly visit to her psychiatrist. It was the cleaning lady who wound up on the couch. Some people might think of this as weird. I see stories in life’s absurdities.

I think back to that dinner party. After dessert was served and the clanging of spoons began with after-dinner coffee, I waited for my moment.

“Did anyone hear a seal bark?”

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