The Dinner Party

Mason realized he was late as soon as he arrived.

That’s Herschel’s Maserati, he said to himself as he parked his beat-up truck beside his friend’s car.

“Mason, these past years you’ve been a recluse; none of the people we know in common have seen much of you. Join us. Schmooze a little. Eat some good food — you know Gillian is a great cook …. What was Elliot talking about? Since Gillian hooked him, she hadn’t set foot in their kitchen, Mason had said to himself when Elliot invited him. “It’ll be like old times. I want you to meet some of the new people,” Elliot told him.

Mason had accepted — reluctantly — wondering what he still had in common with his “old friends”.

To approach the house, Mason drove through massive iron gates reminiscent of some of the stately country mansions he had visited during his periodic trips to England. The house was perfect — had it been located on the French Riviera: pale pink stucco façade, the largest triple-pane windows found only in city skyscrapers, hooded by striped canvass awnings in pastel shades; and a red-tiled clay roof. The only thing missing, Mason thought as he parked beside Herschel’s Maserati, were cypress trees.

His host, Elliot, opened the front door as Mason approached, and flung his arms around him.

“Mason, so glad you were able to make it, buddy,” he said, ushering his long-time friend into his home.

Despite it being mid-summer with the sun shining brilliantly in the clear blue sky, the house was lit up as though it were mid-January during a snowstorm. I guess Elliot and Gillian don’t believe in natural lighting, Mason said to himself as he entered the house, blinded by the glare thrown off the many crystal chandeliers and candelabra placed everywhere. But then he remembered that Gillian — formerly Gabriela — was from Argentina.

“All the lights must be on,” she had said to Mason one day several years before when she had asked him to come over to discuss a charity function. “Because I’m Latina, I can’t hear you speak unless all the lights are on,” she laughed. At the time, Mason thought her explanation quirky, but looking at her, he realized Gabriella was serious.

“Let’s go onto the terrace,” Elliot said, leading Mason across the living room and through the open French doors. “I want you to meet some of the other guests.” The view from Elliot’s terrace was truly spectacular, rolling lawns bordering his lake, with mountains in the distance.

“When did you put in the waterfall?” Mason asked.

“Gillian and I have been discussing it for a year now, but we only just made the decision this spring,” said his host whose attention was drawn by a woman at the far end of the terrace frantically waving at him.

“And you get enough solar?” Mason wondered out loud.

“Oh, we don’t use solar, Mason. We have a motorized pump going night and day, well into fall and winter,” his host told him. “Come, I want to introduce you to our new neighbors.” He led Mason to couple nearby. “Pamela and Larry, I want you to meet my oldest friend.” Elliot then turned to Mason, saying, “I’ll leave you to get acquainted.”

Mason couldn’t but notice Larry’s outfit, as the vermillion short-shorts he was wearing — tucked well about his ample middle — clashed with his butterfly-yellow buttoned shirt that appeared to be missing its top four buttons, exposing an ample matte of fuzzy grey chest hair. But it was Larry’s dyed-orange hairpiece that completed his eye-catching appearance.

“When did you buy here?” Mason asked them, curious. “Elliot told me you are his neighbors.”

“We don’t own a property here, Mason. Elliot was speaking about the home we recently purchased in Palm Beach, a hop and a skip from his place.” Pamela, whose outfit of pastel-Rothko-inspired Bermuda shorts, canary-yellow silk blouse — a shade darker than her husband’s — quail-sized string of Australian pearls, and designer sneakers, made this fact self-evident. “But, tell us about your friendship with Elliot — he said you’ve been friends for a long time?”

“We grew up together, went to the same grammar and high schools. He later attended McGill while I took my degree at Penn, but we kept in touch.”

“Pamela, how very nice to see you here.” A woman, in a pair of vivid-pink crepe de chine pajama bottoms, wearing what looked to Mason like an oversized black bra with a red rose stuck in its center, as a top, joined their conversation.

“Susanna, this is Mason, an old friend of Elliot’s. Mason, Susanna and I share a trainer at our gym.”

“In Palm Beach?” Mason asked.

“Oh no; New York. We both have co-ops in the same building. What brings you to Stowe?” Pamela asked Susanna.

“Well, you know how much I dislike New York in the winter — our reason for having a place in Palm Springs — and I find the city insufferable in the summer, so ….” Mason waited, as Susanna interrupted herself to take an hors d’oeuvre off of a passing plate. “… So, George and I decided ….” Her veneers gleaming, Susanna smiled at a waiter, who was offering Elliot’s guests a glass of champagne. “So, we decided … why not a little something right here?” New York, Palm Springs; why not add Stowe to your inventory? Mason thought.

“You mean, you’re buying a place here in Stowe?” Pamela gasped.

Yes,” Susanna said, opening her mascara’d eyes wide. Her hyaluronic acid-enhanced lips spread from ear-to-ear as she held her manicured hands high up in the air. Her silicone implants heaved with each breath, the red rose suffocating between them.

“That’s wonderful,” Pamela told her. “I’ll have to speak to Larry; perhaps we should buy here too. Having a private jet makes traveling from one place to the other so much easier these days.”

“I know exactly what you mean,” Susanna said, her eyes shifting around the terrace as though in search of something or someone. “I don’t know how we ever lived without ours. To me, our Lear is about as essential as my iPhones, of which I absolutely couldn’t be without one for each house, one for the gym, and the one I use for my friends — oh, and I almost forgot the iPhone I need to keep track of the others,” she giggled as she helped herself to another glass of champagne.

Mason left the group as he wasn’t much interested in private jets, and multiple homes and iPhones, and wandered around the terrace, thinking he might take a leisurely walk to Elliot’s private waterfall. As he reached the steps to the lawn, he met Sybil Geller, an old friend who he saw from time to time when she and her husband Michael spent a few days in Stowe — between their family residence in Philadelphia and their winter place in Sarasota.

“Mason, how lovely to see you; have you been well?” Sybil asked. Sybil was well-preserved, the result of her periodic visits to the best plastic surgeon in Boston (as she didn’t want anyone in Philadelphia to know).

“I’m well,” Mason told her. “How is Michael?” he asked, her husband was nowhere to be seen.

“He’s in a rather important business deal,” she confided. “Coal ….”

Coal?” Mason shuddered.

“Well, he tells me that there’s a shortage in China, and they use a lot of the stuff.”

“I thought Michael was primarily involved in LNG?”

“He is, but for some reason the price of coal has been skyrocketing, leaving natural gas far behind.”

“Isn’t coal a rather nasty product?” Mason asked, knowing that it emitted noxious fumes that pollute the atmosphere.

“Well, it’s been around since the Industrial Revolution, you know, and lots of people use it — and, anyway, Michael says it’s the time to buy, so he’s buying.”

“You mean he’s investing in a coal mine?”

“Not exactly — shares of companies that own coal mines.”


“West Virginia. And he’s thinking about buying a place there — you know, to be on the spot.” Mason hadn’t time to question Michael’s reasons — other than to be on the spot — as Herschel and Miriam grabbed him.

“Let’s walk to Elliot’s folly,” Miriam laughed. It is unbelievable that today, in this country, anyone would advertise their investment in coal, like Sybil just did, Mason thought to himself as the three of them chatted while they ambled over the lawn in the direction of Elliot’s waterfall.

“I see you still drive your Maserati,” Mason said, recalling he’d parked his 10-year- old somewhat rusted pick-up next to the flashy emerald-green convertible.

“Nope; it’s now Miriam’s,” Herschel told him. “I bought a Lamborghini.”

“Hersch has always dreamed of driving a Lamborghini, so I gave him the opportunity. I said I would sacrifice myself and take the Maserati of his hands,” Miriam smiled. “But now he says we have to move.”

“Why?” Mason wondered.

“New York has become too risky. You can’t leave anything on the street unattended, even during daylight. And a Lamborghini? Not that he would ever leave it parked on the street, but just the thought, so he said, let’s get out of the city,” Miriam explained.

“And, forget about using the subway system,” Herschel added.

“Hersch, when was the last time you took a subway?” His wife looked at him, her eyes two question marks. “I can tell you — never. Hersch thinks subways are fast-food outlets or underground homeless shelters,” she told Mason.

“Where will you go?” Mason asked, wondering if owning and driving a Maserati or a Lamborghini was safe anywhere. Perhaps Miriam was being facetious, he speculated.  

“You know, it’s a damn hard decision,” Herschel told him. “Chicago isn’t safe — there’s a killing, a stabbing, or a rape every three-and-a-half minutes. LA is run by an anarchist DA who doesn’t believe in jailtime for anyone, and the city’s a mess — homeless camps all over the place. Seattle has been overrun by some terrorist group that have barricaded whole districts. Houston’s too close to the border, inundated by hordes of illegal immigrants ….”

“That doesn’t leave you much of a choice,” Mason chuckled.

“My vote is for Paris,” Miriam said, as she smiled at her husband.

“You know, Paris might work,” Herschel said. “We could keep Aspen and San Miguel. We looked at a flat on the Île de France.”

“And I’m told that the 4th arrondissement is the safest, so that’s my choice,” Miriam announced. Secretly he wondered if these people lived in the same world as he did? His home was an authentic 18th century farmhouse surrounded by perennial gardens that he weeded and pruned himself, and while he traveled to Europe, Asia, or Latin America once a year, he always stayed in B & Bs and never ate in restaurants with more than one Michelin star.

They reached Elliot’s waterfall, encountering Saul and Rachel Smith, who were sitting on a stone bench, admiring the view.

“It’s pleasant to simply sit here and forget,” Saul said as his friends approached. Seeing Saul, Mason’s thoughts went back to his days at Penn where he had met Saul, as they were in the same class at the Wharton School. All these years and marrying Rachel hadn’t changed Mason’s opinion of him. He still didn’t like him. Saul was then, and remained, a blowhard and a borderline crook — like when he boasted that he had paid another student to write his final term paper for him in the finance course they were both enrolled in, the justice being that Saul only received a C-.

“Saul has a lot on his mind,” his wife told them.

“My factory’s on strike ….”

“That’s the reason we could get away,” his wife explained.

“They want more wages ….”

“25% more,” his wife noted.

“The union says that with inflation running at close to 10% this year, its members can’t pay their bills ….”

“And put food on the table,” Rachel added.

“What are you doing about it?” Herschel asked, not simply curious as he had his own issues with his employees.

“Sit them out,” Saul replied. “I have my shareholders to think about. They expect — I might say, demand — that we show an annual profit increase. If I accede to the union’s demands, my shareholders will be disappointed.”

“You’re right, Saul,” Herschel told him. “My employees not only want more money, but their demands include what they call ‘gender equality’ and ‘seats on my board’. Fuck that, that’s what I say.” Herschel let out a loud belch.

“Today, it’s all about them. What about us?” Saul remarked.

“I think I see Gillian waving. Dinner must be ready,” Rachel told them, and the five friends walked slowly back to the house. The only thing about Saul that’s changed is he’s a lot fatter now than he was at Penn, probably because he’s so full of himself, Mason was thinking, watching Saul’s belly move up and down over his belt that he had fastened so tight Mason wondered how the fat slob could breathe?

Gillian’s dining table could easily seat the sixteen friends and acquaintances that she and Elliot had invited. Mason found himself between Nancy Greenleaf, someone he scarcely knew and rarely saw, and Feiga Fisher, another old friend from his youth. The last time he saw Feiga she was teaching in the Women’s Issues Department at a university in Toronto, but that was some years before; she might have retired since. Her late husband, Simon, had been an economics professor, Mason recalled.

Actually, he had dated Feiga — briefly — when they were both in high school. She was quite pretty, he recollected, smiling as he looked at her. I can’t remember why we stopped seeing one another. She’s become a handsome woman.

He’d heard — he couldn’t remember from whom — that Nancy and her husband, Lester, owned and operated a cattle ranch in Texas, but he really didn’t know them well, nor was he that curious to know them better.

The first course was served, with everyone — including the hostess — wondering what it was.

“What could it be?” Miriam asked as if she was staring at something from outer space in the bowl placed in front of her.

“Its color is a vivid green, so it must be made from vegetables,” Nancy informed everyone.

“I bet it’s broccoli,” Larry said. “I love broccoli ….”

“Since when?” Pamela questioned her husband. “The first time I served you broccoli after we returned from our honeymoon, you vomited. I never cooked the unmentionable again as I didn’t want you to repeat your performance.”

“I know what it is — pea soup,” Lester told the other guests. “I don’t eat peas. Never have; never will.”

But then Gillian remembered her cook telling her: green gazpacho.

“Heavens, Gillian, how did you ever think of a green gazpacho?” Sybil asked. “Delicious.” She blew on her spoon and, with great effort, forced it threw her surgically-modified lips.

“Well, my dear Sybil, haven’t you been listening to the news?” their hostess asked, as she, too, sipped a spoonful in her mouth.

“What has your gazpacho to do with …” Miriam paused, humming while she ate the gazpacho, “anything in the news?” she asked.

“The Green New Deal, my dear,” their hostess replied.

“Ah, now I understand,” Michael said, “and I applaud your ingenuity. I’ve been following its progress very keenly.”

“And?” Gillian asked.

“I think it’s great, just great,” Michael answered.

“Which? My soup or the proposed legislation?” their hostess asked.

“Both,” Michael told her between mouthfuls.

“Tell me, Michael, how is your support of the Green New Deal consistent with, what I understand to be, your latest involvement in coal mines?” their hostess asked. She then sat back and waited for his rationale.

“I don’t think my husband should have to defend an investment,” Sybil told them, finishing her gazpacho, then slamming her spoon heavily in the china bowl in front of her.

“Luckily she didn’t crack the plate,” Lester mumbled, lifting his bowl and looking at the stamped maker’s mark on its underside. “Meissen. Very expensive,” he added to himself.

“Is that how you see it, Michael?” Harry asked.

“Exactly. As Sybil said, my principals are one thing; my investments — in this case in coal mines — are something else.”

“I find your reasoning somewhat absurd,” Pamela opined.

“I wouldn’t criticize Michael too harshly, Pamela,” Saul advised her. “Don’t you and Harry fly your own private jet and own several homes?” Saul asked. “In my books, your lifestyle is on a par with investing in coal mines.” His comparison drew everyone’s attention away from the remnants of their gazpacho.

“Saul, just because you and Rachel live on a budget doesn’t mean the rest of us must,” George told him.

“Everyone, please, can we stop this discussion and move on to the next course?” Gillian asked.

“Gillian should have been like any normal American and served the regular red gazpacho,” Feiga whispered to Mason. “It would have saved a lot of heated conversation.”

“But don’t you find that it has brought out some true personalities?” Mason asked his dinner partner. Perhaps they ought to become reacquainted, he thought as she smiled at him. Her smile brought back fond memories of their aborted courtship so many years ago.

“I agree, Mason, but at times it’s best to leave certain personality traits private, don’t you think?” Feiga said, icily, thinking that since they dated in high school, Mason seemed to have become a little too opinionated for her tastes.

When the servers brought in the second course — grilled Maine lobster — cries of delight resounded from everyone — everyone, that is, except from Feiga.

“Oh, Gillian, I forgot to mention; I don’t eat lobster,” she told their hostess.

“Feiga, what in heaven’s name why?” Nancy asked as she began chewing a slice of the lobster, emitting audible spasms of delight.

“Since I joined the local chapter of Stop Killing Animals Alive,” Feiga told her.

“What has your mission … I imagine your organization calls it a ‘mission?’ What has the mission of the organization ….” Nancy paused, to shove another forkful of the lobster in her mouth, “… to do with this absolutely mouth-watering lobster?” Nancy glared across the table at Feiga.

“Perhaps, in your ignorance, Nancy, you are unaware of how one cooks a lobster.” Feiga’s look should have ended the discussion, but Nancy was so involved in eating that she either didn’t hear Feiga or she had decided to ignore Feiga’s barb altogether.

“For your information, Feiga, I’m as concerned about our wildlife as much as you are,” Nancy retorted. “In my spare time — of which I have precious little these days — I volunteer for our chapter of the Wildlife Conservancy.” With relish, she dug into the remnants of her lobster.

“Nancy, wasn’t it you who I saw buying an Hèrmes bag at their Greenwich location?” Sybil asked.

“It could have been,” Nancy replied, not losing her sang-froid. “You know, Lester and I have a little place in Greenwich. I go to the Hèrmes boutique there from time to time.”

“You hurried out before I could say hello. I was there looking for a bag for my mother. I asked the saleslady what it was you had purchased as I thought it might give me an idea.”

“Did it?” Nancy asked, rather tartly.

“No, actually no. She told me you were there to fetch a certain bag you had ordered — a verdant green niloticus crocodile bag, to be exact.” As she said this, Sybil smiled … and Nancy stopped eating. “Would you say that owning such a bag is consistent with the volunteering you do ‘in your precious spare time’ for the Wildlife Conservancy?”

“I think we should continue on to the main course,” Herschel hastily suggested. “Don’t you all agree?”

“I hope there aren’t many more courses,” Mason heard Susanna say to Harry in an undertone.

“I don’t think I could take more of the discussions without my Maalox,” Harry replied, “and I left it in the glove compartment.”

“Elliot has a surprise for us all,” Gillian announced.

“Any more surprises and I’ll have to take a valium,” Harry whispered to Susanna.

“He prepared an asada.”

“A … what?” Miriam wondered.

At that moment, Elliot entered from another set of French doors carrying a tray. “These are the best damn steaks money can buy!” he declared.

“And Elliot cooked them all himself!” Gillian beamed with pride, placing her free arm around her husband’s waist to draw him into a kiss on the lips.

Everyone clapped … except for Rachel. She sat on her hands, a deep frown emerging on her face.

“Do you realize that steers and cows and all ruminants are killing the planet?” Rachel stated, looking around the table.

“What’s she talking about?” Susanna asked the air around her, but no one was listening.

Elliot began placing a streak on each of the plates as the servers handed them to him.

“How can any of you sitting at this table not be aware of the dangerous effects of cows and other ruminants on our planet?” Rachel cried, wiping away tears of indignation with her serviette.

“Is Rachel off her rocker?” George said, grabbing a plate from one of the servers.

“You may believe that it’s because of their flatulence,” Rachel said, glaring at the other guests.

“Fla-chew-lence … what’s that?” Pamela wondered out loud, putting a piece of steak in her mouth.

“Farting,” her husband Harry, told her. He gazed longingly at the steak placed in front of him that he had yet to begin cutting into.

“Flatulence is only a small part of the damage cows do to our atmosphere.” Now daggers were coming out of Rachel’s mouth, aimed at all those around the table.

“Well, I can tell you, with four kids all farting whenever they like, it can be pretty ….”

“Shut up,” George’s wife told him, interrupting his commentary.

“Grazing animals, of which cows are a large part, emit dozens of polluting gases, including lots of methane,” Rachel told them, now diving into her lecture.

“Who cares?” Pamela said, as she continued to eat her steak.

“Two-thirds of all ammonia comes from cows.” Rachel continued, slamming the table with the blunt end of her steak knife — for emphasis.

“Perhaps I should build an ammonia plant on Lester’s thousand-acre ranch instead of buying into coal mines,” Michael told them all.

“You’re probably all wondering how cows emit the massive amount of methane they do.” Rachel looked around, but everyone was deep into their steaks at this point.

“I don’t,” Pamela said between mouthfuls.

“Through belching,” Rachel offered.

“George does that all the time, even during meals,” Susanna informed their friends.

“Each cow emits between 100 and 200 liters of methane every day. That’s between 26 and 53 gallons, and some experts say it could be as much as 132 gallons.” Rachel was now acting like a candidate for office, almost screaming to be heard over the chewing and gnawing of the other guests.

“Holy shit. Why the fuck was I persuaded to invest in those god damn coal mines. I could become really rich by opening methane plants,” Michael cried out, plunging his fork into the center of the steak on his plate.

“Do any of you sitting here eating steak realize that, in New Zealand, 34% of all the greenhouse gases comes from livestock, of which cows and sheep are the vast majority?” Rachel was now acting like an evangelist, bent on converting her friends.

“She’s giving me indigestion,” Harry muttered to himself. “I might excuse myself, and go to get my Maalox.”

“Forget about Lester’s cattle ranch; my best bet is to open methane plants in New Zealand,” Michael speculated.

Mason looked around. All he saw were sets of chemically-whitened teeth and eyes glued on the contents of what was left on the plates in front of them. “Cretins,” he said, turning to Feiga who was sitting back in her chair, the steak on her plate remaining untouched. She turned away from him, mumbling, “He’s definitely become too opinionated,” he heard her mutter.

By the time Rachel finished her lecture, only a few of Elliot and Gillian’s guests had finished their steaks — and none had asked for seconds. The only person who had remained consistently silent was Lester. Aside from Michael’s comment about setting up methane plants on or near his Texan ranch (perhaps no one had heard Michael) Lester’s 2,600-herd operation had not been mentioned, fortunately. He ate his steak with the uncomfortable fear that someone would make a comment, and for this reason he hadn’t enjoyed his meal.

The plates were cleared in silence, heaped with the remnants of everyone’s grilled steaks — everyone’s except for Elliot’s and Gillian’s, for they had eaten theirs, not leaving anything, not even the fatty edges, behind. No one belched, not even George.

“This has been one hell of a meal so far,” Saul said to anyone interested, not realizing that no one was.

“Perhaps we should move on to dessert?” Gillian told her guests.

“I wonder which of us will object to whatever it is?” Sybil said.

It was a blueberry tart. Actually, three identical blueberry tarts.

Mason speculated if anyone at the table realized that it might have been underpaid and overworked migrant workers who’d picked the blueberries baked in the tarts they were about to devour? Most likely not, he said to himself, seeing only well-fed faces.

“I’ll have everyone know,” Gillian said, “that I prepared these tarts myself.”

No one said a word, everyone thinking the same thought as Sybil. The silence continued until finally, Feiga clinked her champagne glass with her dessert fork.

“I think all of us here tonight should thank Gillian — and, of course, Elliot — for a most delightful dinner party.”

Mason looked around the table. He asked himself why had he been invited? He owned but one home, and it could fit into Elliot’s garage. His sole vehicle was a 10-year-old Chevy pickup. When he travelled, he used commercial flights — and always in economy class. He believed in global warming, and he was a vegetarian.

Listening to the conversation, he had lost his appetite well before dessert. He should have excused himself, returned home and listened to Jonathan Biss play Beethoven sonatas while he sipped a glass of spiced rum — but he had stayed.

He was a hypocrite, like the others, for having accepted Elliot’s invitation.


Born in Montreal, E.P. Lande has lived in France and Vermont, where he now lives with his partner. Previously, he taught at l’Université d’Ottawa as a Vice-Dean and has owned country inns. Recently, his stories have been accepted by more than two dozen journals including Bewildering Stories, Archtype and Literally Stories.