Lame Duck

Katherine Heiny

He thought of himself as the New Graham now. Not New and Improved, because it wasn’t an improvement. He would have liked to go on being the Old Graham, but that wasn’t an option. The Old Graham had thought he’d stay married to Audra forever; the New Graham wasn’t so sure. The New Graham’s future was unknown.
    Maybe because of that, the New Graham was freer to speak his mind. He said things like, “Why are we having twenty people over for Thanksgiving when we don’t actually like any of them?”
    Audra frowned at him slightly across the dinner table. “I’m sure that’s an exaggeration. You told me once that you had an interesting conversation with Manny about traffic light timings.”
    “That’s not the same as liking him,” Graham said. “And I don’t know that it could be described as interesting—it’s more like the most interesting conversation I’ve had with Manny, which isn’t saying much.”
    “I didn’t know Manny was coming,” Matthew, their ten-year-old son, said happily.
    Audra smiled at him. “Your whole origami club is coming.”
    “That’s basically my point,” Graham said.
    “What is?”
    “Well, why is his whole club coming?” Graham asked. “Why is the pediatrician coming? Why is Mrs. Bellamy from downstairs coming when I’ve never spoken to her except once when she got a package for us?”
    “Because none of those people had plans for Thanksgiving,” Audra said. “It made me sad to think of them all alone.”
    Even the New Graham didn’t have the heart to say it made him sadder to think of them coming over.
    “Consider it a sort of lame duck Thanksgiving,” Audra continued.
    “We’re having duck for Thanksgiving?” Matthew asked, looking worried. He didn’t even like turkey very much.
    “That’s just an expression,” Graham said.
    He didn’t see much point in arguing because all these people were invited already. Thanksgiving had a way of turning out like this. Audra had always liked to invite lonely people or couples. She liked to include them, to offer them, if only for one day, a home that was as bright and warm and appealing as sunlight on a varnished wooden floor. But things were different this year, Graham thought. He and Audra were a damaged couple, damaged by Audra’s affair. They should be the guests, not the hosts. They were the lame ducks now.

After dinner that night, Graham sat at the table and started planning the food for Thanksgiving, but first he made a list of the guests, calling to Audra in the kitchen for clarification from time to time:

Lorelei (8)
Don (6)
Clayton, Matthew’s origami teacher (2)
Pearl, Clayton’s wife (5)
Manny, origami club member (1)
Alan, origami club member (1)
Julio (8)
Rosaria, Julio’s girlfriend
Dr. Moley, Matthew’s pediatrician (5)
Dinah, Dr. Moley’s wife
Mr. Vargas, Matthew’s piano teacher (3)
Mrs. Bellamy, the old lady on six (6)

Audra came in from cleaning the kitchen, a sponge in her hand, and looked at the list over his shoulder. “What’s the number in parentheses after each name?”
    “It’s my rating of how easy they are to talk to,” Graham said. “One being the most difficult, ten being easiest.”
    Audra was completely silent for two minutes—he timed it—and still, studying the list from over his shoulder. She smelled faintly of butterscotch. They were hardly ever this close to each other these days.
    Finally, she said, “Well, I’d give Pearl a six, or maybe a five point five, because you can always talk to her about antique lace. She collects it.”
    “I’m not sure I could survive a conversation about antique lace,” Graham said. “I think that should actually lower her score because now there’s an area I have to avoid.”
    Audra began wiping the table with the sponge. “Also, you didn’t include Elspeth.”
    Elspeth was his ex-wife.
    “I’d give her maybe a seven,” Graham said. “No, six. Wait, five.”
    “No, I mean you didn’t put her on the list, and she’s coming to Thanksgiving,” Audra said.
    “She is?” he said. “I didn’t think she was even speaking to us.”
    “Well, she wasn’t,” Audra said, “and then I accidentally included her on this group e-mail about Matthew’s school auction and she e-mailed back and said, ‘Please don’t bother me with your tacky fundraiser,’ and I replied and we sort of went back and forth and I invited her. I’m sure I told you.”
    Graham was silent.
    “Are you angry?” Audra asked. This was not something she would have asked the Old Graham. The Old Graham was never angry with her. She brushed her hair back from her face, her wet fingers leaving a shiny streak on her forehead.
    “No,” he said. “I’m trying to estimate the minimum number of exchanges it would take to get from her reply to your invitation.”
    “Oh, well.” Audra looked thoughtful. “Not that many, actually. Less than you’d think.”

Although he hadn’t spoken to Elspeth for over a year, he still had her phone number, and the next day he called her from his office.
    “Elspeth Osborne,” she said crisply, unexpectedly causing Graham to have a vivid image of her. Audra and every other woman he knew tilted their heads slightly when they answered the phone, so they could slide their phones under their hair. But Elspeth always wore her hair pulled back in a French twist. She answered the phone without any nonsense. He could visualize the rest of her too: her perfect posture, the silk blouses she favored, the narrowness of her shoulders, the way she always sat with her feet tucked slightly under her chair because she believed that crossing one’s legs caused varicose veins. (“It does?” Audra had said in a horrified voice when Elspeth had told her this years ago. She’d lost nearly a whole night of sleep worrying about it before deciding it was an old wives’ tale, like the thing about leaning on your elbows making them ugly.)
    “Hello,” he said. “It’s me. Graham.”
    “Hello, Graham,” Elspeth said. Her voice was still crisp, neither friendly nor unfriendly.
    “Audra told me last night you were coming to Thanksgiving dinner,” he said. “And I just wanted to make sure you really wanted to.”
    “Of course I do, or I wouldn’t be coming,” Elspeth said. “I don’t do things I don’t want to.”
    That was certainly true. “Well, good,” he said.
    “What an odd question,” Elspeth said. “Are you calling all the guests and asking them that?”
    “No, just you,” Graham said. “I just wanted to make sure you were . . . comfortable with the idea.”
    “I’m fine,” she said. “I’m looking forward to meeting your friends.”
    “They’re not my friends,” Graham said before he thought.
    “This is such a strange conversation,” Elspeth said mildly. “It’s like you’ve been drinking only I don’t think you have. What do you mean, they’re not your friends?”
    “It’s more like a, uh, potpourri of acquaintances,” Graham said.
    “I dislike it when people use the word potpourri to describe anything except a mixture of flower petals and spices,” she said.
    Ah, well. Elspeth had a multitude of dislikes, many of them to do with language. It was useless to point out that he had actually used potpourri correctly. It wasn’t about correctness, it was about Elspeth. She also felt that central heating should be called all-around heating, and that the word jentacular should make a comeback, and that nonplussed was just plain imprecise and should be banned.
    He used to think all this very tedious, but the New Graham found it refreshing.

Graham was in the kitchen, caramelizing onions, when Audra came in and said that she was thinking about inviting the gay couple down on five to Thanksgiving.
    “My reasoning here is twofold,” she said. “First of all, they’re here in the building, which means that they could bring some chairs with them, and second, I thought they might have a nice friend they could fix Mr. Vargas up with.”
    “Mr. Vargas is gay?” Graham said. That was Matthew’s piano teacher.
    “Oh, yes,” Audra said. “Didn’t you know that?”
    “No, he hadn’t known that, but he did know the couple down on five Audra was talking about, and they were tall, glamorous-looking men in their thirties who worked in advertising. It seemed unlikely they would have friends interested in a portly fifty-year-old Argentinian piano teacher.
    “Anyway,” Audra continued. “When I invited Mr. Vargas to Thanksgiving, I said, ‘Now, if there’s someone you’d like to bring, you’re more than welcome,’ and Mr. Vargas said, ‘I’d love to but I’m unhappily single right now,’ and I said, ‘Well, I’m very sorry to hear that,’ and he said, ‘You’re sorry! How do you think I feel?’ And it turns out that up until about six weeks ago, Mr. Vargas lived with this very nice but very volatile violinist, and then one day right in the produce section at Whole Foods, they had a big argument about whether The Blue Danube was written in three-four time or six-eight time, and the violinist pulled out his iPhone and said, ‘I’ll just look it up on Google and you’ll see I’m right,’ and Mr. Vargas said, ‘Never mind! I can’t believe I’ve wasted two years of my life on someone who has to look up the time signature of The Blue Danube!’ And they broke up then and there, and the violinist stormed off, leaving Mr. Vargas holding a bunch of kale. And now Mr. Vargas lives alone, and he says that sometimes he plays The Blue Danube in six-eight time and thinks that it sounds better that way, haunting almost, and I said, ‘Mr. Vargas, that is just beautiful, you should call the violinist up and tell him that,’ and Mr. Vargas said, ‘No, because it turns out he also never cared for my habit of whistling—’”
    The Old Graham would have listened patiently to all this. He would have allowed himself to be drawn into a discussion about it. But the New Graham just said, “For God’s sake, Audra! No more guests! Why don’t you invite the building super while you’re at it?”
    “He had other plans,” Audra said.
    That was the thing about her. She made him laugh.

It was not that Graham wanted to leave Audra. It was more that he wasn’t sure he wanted to stay. It made him feel unsettled. More than that. Unmoored. Every morning he woke up in their bedroom and had that disturbing, panicky sensation he had when he slept in hotels or other people’s guest rooms and saw the unfamiliar furnishings and layout and couldn’t remember where he was. Every single morning he woke up feeling like that, and Audra had no idea.
    She was the most oblivious person he knew. She had no concept of the restless ideas that roiled in his head at work, in bed at night, on the subway. Right now while he quietly made himself a cup of tea in the kitchen, his mind was churning with discontent, and she was talking on the phone to Lorelei as though she hadn’t a care in the world. Probably if he told her he was leaving, her mouth would pop open in surprise, and she’d be silent and shocked for a moment, and it was even likely she’d say something like, “Not before the Cub Scout banquet!” (It was very likely.)
    And how could you leave someone who had absolutely no concept of boundaries in the first place? It was very easy to imagine that if Graham moved out and got an apartment nearby—say, just for example, the one-bedroom the Vosburgs on three were vacating—that Audra would come over all the time. Graham liked to picture himself there, often with Matthew, the two of them living together quietly, Matthew doing his homework at the table while Graham read the newspaper, and then later, Graham would teach Matthew how to make chili con carne, and they’d eat together while they watched a documentary about giant tortoises.
    But even in Graham’s imagination, Audra intruded, ringing the bell, barging in, telling him that the plumber’s father had colitis and asking if her new blouse made her look like a librarian. She would probably invite him for Thanksgiving, along with all her other strays! He would probably even have to cook Thanksgiving dinner at her apartment, unless he wanted to have pizza. Come to think of it, Audra would probably prefer to have pizza. She would serve pizza and invite Graham and maybe Elspeth, too, and delight in having everyone think she was so kind and generous.
    Graham was so agitated thinking about this that he knocked his mug over and spilled hot water on the counter. In the living room, Audra said into the phone, “I had a rash like that on my big toe once and thought it was leprosy, but it turns out I’m allergic to wool socks.”
    Of course, Graham wouldn’t have to go just because Audra invited him. In fact, he wouldn’t even have to let her into his new apartment. He could answer the door and stand there, looking all preoccupied, while she jingled her keys and jostled from foot to foot, trying to look past him. (Where would she be going? He didn’t like to think about that.)
    If she asked to come in, he’d say it wasn’t a good time. He’d say he had company. No, he’d just say it wasn’t a good time. That was better. And then she’d go away disappointed, and he’d have made her feel bad, the only way he could.

You could say that the reason Graham and Elspeth wound up drinking brandy in a bar on Twenty-Ninth Street was coincidence. Because they did not plan to meet in the Indian grocery store, they just happened to see each other.
    He almost didn’t recognize her, that’s how spontaneous it was. She was wearing a red turtleneck sweater and gray flannel pants under a gray coat, and it had been so many years since Graham had seen Elspeth in anything other than a skirt that it was almost like seeing someone shopping in her nightgown.
    “Graham,” she said. “Twice in one week.”
    He had forgotten how pale and clear her eyes were, how sometimes it seemed you could see all the way to the back of them, like fishbowls filled with blue water.
    Wasn’t it natural that they should walk around the store together? And how peaceful it was to shop with someone who didn’t lean on the cart in a bored way, who didn’t have to be sent on made-up errands to other aisles, who didn’t complain that the smell of spices was making her tongue itch.
    You could even say it was a matter of personal safety, because while they were in the cardamom section, it began raining outside, storming really, and Elspeth always wore such tall stiletto heels (her one nod to vanity, Graham had always thought) that she could not safely run after a cab. And besides, there were no cabs to be found.
    So it was only common sense that they should take their groceries and hurry into the bar next door to wait out the storm. And what a pleasure it was to have a drink with someone who didn’t flirt with the bartender, who didn’t interrupt Graham to say, “Wait, is this like the time I lost my purse on Coney Island?” Here was someone he could discuss current events with, someone who read the newspaper, who didn’t say impatiently, “You can only talk about that if afterward I can talk about my new leather jacket.”
    Here was someone who looked at him steadily, seriously, over the rim of her glass. Someone who drank brandy instead of beer, who knew enough to warm the glass in her hands, her fingers cupping the snifter as gracefully as a stem supports a full flower, who swirled the amber-colored liquid around and around in a way that made Graham almost dizzy, oh yes, it did.

It seemed that Audra’s main contribution to Thanksgiving dinner was getting herself ready, which she took over an hour to do, while Graham peeled potatoes and basted the turkey and mixed the stuffing. Though he had to admit that she looked very pretty when she finally appeared wearing a periwinkle-blue sweaterdress she’d owned for many years but was still as richly colored and soft-looking as the day she’d bought it. Her hair was pulled back in a silver clasp at the nape of her neck, and she wore silver earrings that made a pleasant clicking sound whenever she turned her head.
    To be fair, she also set the table, even producing a paper turkey as a centerpiece, the kind you popped open to reveal the round, honeycombed tissue-paper body. Then she made little name cards, and irritated Graham unendurably by calling out to him about the seating plan as he struggled to roll out pastry crust. “Now, do you think Elspeth would enjoy talking to Clayton?” she called. “Do you think Julio and Pearl would have things in common? Do you think Dr. Moley would be interested in discussing Alan’s hives?”
    The Old Graham would have debated these things with her, but the New Graham simply called out “No!” impatiently to every question. Which was the truth anyway.
    Audra was just saying, “I feel like I’m seating a cat next to a dog,” when the doorbell rang. “Now who could be rude enough to come right on time?” she asked.
    The answer was Matthew’s origami club, that’s who. They all arrived together: Clayton; his wife, Pearl; Manny; and Alan. Alan was a large man with freckles and fading red hair. Clayton was a scrawny, excitable man in his fifties with a thin white beard. His wife looked almost identical, minus the beard, and Manny resembled Clayton closely enough that they could have passed for brothers. (Was Clayton replicating himself ? It was a disturbing thought.)
    Graham took their coats, and Audra herded them all into the living room, where they clustered around the coffee table with Matthew and pulled origami paper from their backpacks.
    “I thought we’d attempt the Roosevelt Elk today,” Clayton told them all, and then the doorbell rang again, and Graham went to answer it.
    It was Mr. Vargas, wearing a starched white shirt and bow tie. He was beaming and offering a bottle of red wine.
    “Please come in,” Graham said, and they were halfway down the hall when they met Matthew coming the other direction, probably headed to his room for his own supply of origami paper.
    Matthew’s eyes got very big when he saw Mr. Vargas. “Do I have to have a piano lesson?”
    “No, no,” Graham said soothingly. “Mr. Vargas is just here to have dinner.”
    At that moment, the doorbell rang yet again, and this time the door swung open before Graham even had a chance to move toward it, and a woman’s voice called, “Yoo-hoo!”
    A man and woman entered. It was Dr. Moley, Matthew’s pediatrician, and his wife, Dinah. When Matthew saw Dr. Moley, he clutched Graham’s sleeve and whispered, “Do I have to have a shot?”
    “No, Matthew,” he said. “You go on back with everyone else.” And he turned to greet the Moleys.
    Audra had always said that she could never make up her mind as to whether Dr. Moley was a genius or belonged in a special home somewhere. But what Dr. Moley seemed like to Graham was an aging alcoholic. His eyes were bloodshot, and he listed slightly as he walked. The faint smell of bourbon seemed to cling to his big gray walrus moustache.
    Dinah Moley was a small, spry, blonde woman with black shoe-button eyes. “I hope we’re not going to eat too late,” she said to Audra when they were all in the living room, “because we’re flying to Florence tomorrow.” Then she looked at Graham and said, “Vincent needs a drink.”
    She said this in such a way that it caused Graham to think Vincent was either a very small dog she carried in her purse or an imaginary friend of some sort. He was about to ask cagily whether Vincent liked water or milk when he realized from the expectant way Dr. Moley was looking at him that she was referring to her husband.
    “Certainly,” said Graham. “Bourbon on the rocks?”
    “That’d be great,” Dr. Moley said, not seeming to wonder how Graham knew.
    Graham stepped into the kitchen for ice cubes, and Matthew came up nervously behind him. “Who else is coming?”
    “Just friends of Mom’s and mine,” Graham said.
    “Not Dr. Alpen?” That was the dentist.
    “Would you tell me if he was?”
    “Yes, of course.”
    Matthew looked unconvinced but left the kitchen without further argument. Graham followed him with the ice bucket, figuring that otherwise he’d be making a lot of trips to the kitchen for Dr. Moley.
    He saw that Manny and Alan had gotten up for some reason and were standing at the table, snickering at Audra’s paper-turkey centerpiece. Graham felt a sudden protective rage and a fierce desire to shove Manny and Alan out the window.
    And then he thought, to hell with it. Let Audra fend for herself.

When Julio arrived, Graham was so happy to see someone normal, he nearly cut a caper right there at the door. Instead he said, “Welcome!” in a booming voice unlike his own.
    “Hey, Mr. Cavanaugh,” Julio said easily. (He was a doorman and used to greeting people.) “This is my girlfriend, Rosaria.”
    Rosaria was a slender black-haired girl in her early twenties, with enormous brown eyes fringed by thick dark lashes and full red lips that even Graham could tell were free of lipstick. She looked extremely nervous, and Graham wondered if her promotion to Julio’s girlfriend was something that had happened very recently.
    Audra came clicking up behind him in her high heels to greet Julio, and when she saw Rosaria, her face became carefully neutral, and her eyes took in Rosaria from head to toe with a long look and a slow single blink, like a lizard’s. Graham knew she was assessing Rosaria’s outfit—jeans and a tight-fitting pink satin cowboy type of shirt with pearly snap buttons—and comparing it to her own. He waited to see whether she would decide that Rosaria’s outfit was sexier.
    She must have, because in the next instant, she gave both Rosaria and Julio her most dazzling smile and said, “It’s such a pleasure to meet you, Rosaria! Give me a kiss, Julio!”
    Graham marveled for the hundredth time that out of all the women he knew, Audra alone seemed to understand that the prettiest woman in any room would always be the one with the most confident smile.
    Before Graham could close the door, the elevator chimed again, and Elspeth stepped out into the hall. She carried her coat over her arm and wore a slim black skirt and plain white blouse—no lizard look for her from Audra.
    “Elspeth, this is Julio and Rosaria,” he said, hoping that Audra wouldn’t feel it necessary to say that Julio was the afternoon doorman in their building and that Elspeth was his ex-wife, but she probably would. She believed, he knew, that you had to give people a little bit of information as a conversation starter when you introduced them. Graham didn’t disagree with this policy. It was just that Audra always chose information he’d rather she not share.
    And sure enough, Audra said to Rosaria, “Elspeth and Graham were married for eight years, and then separated for—”
    Thankfully the elevator chimed again, and this time it was Audra’s friend Lorelei and her husband, and Audra got so excited to see Lorelei (she always did) that she lost the thread of what she was saying, and Graham could steer them all into the living room.
    Lorelei’s husband, Don, was a big, fleshy man whose features were clustered too close together on his large face. He wore a blue dress shirt that had forced a roll of fat over the back of his collar. He looked to Graham like a not-very-bright Midwestern high-school football player who now sold used cars. Actually, he was a native New Yorker and the chief commercial officer of an international company. Graham liked him a lot.
    “Origami!” Don exclaimed in the sort of falsely excited voice people use when they talk about visiting a museum. “What are we making?”
    “We’re not making anything,” Alan said. “We’re folding the Roosevelt Elk.”
    Don was not offended. “Well, let me a pull up a chair here and see what I can do to help.”
    “Me too,” Julio said, looking as though he were enjoying himself. “Come on, Rosaria.”
    Everyone huddled around the coffee table, reaching casually for Manny’s stack of lokta origami paper, which Graham knew Manny had special-ordered from Nepal.
    Audra paused beside Graham and whispered, “I’m so embarrassed that everyone thinks we’ve planned origami as entertainment!” Graham took everyone’s drink orders and headed to the corner of the room where he’d set up the bar.
    Behind him, Audra continued introducing people and tossing out conversation starters. “Julio, this is Dr. Moley,” she said. “Dr. Moley once removed a piece of Lego from Matthew’s ear. Lorelei, this is Alan. He’s allergic to beets. Pearl, this is Mr. Vargas. He’s just been through a difficult breakup.”
    “Nice to meet you,” Mr. Vargas said. “Have you ever been to Whole Foods?”
    Clayton said aggressively, “I think we should have an advanced table and a beginner’s table.”
    Dinah Moley said to Elspeth, “I hope we eat soon because Vincent and I are flying to Florence tomorrow.”
    Who were these people? What was Graham doing here? Where was his life, the one he was meant to be living? He had never felt so desperately alone. He sighed. Maybe if he turned up the oven, they could eat sooner and everyone would go home. He sighed again and began pouring wine.

Elspeth bustled into the kitchen. She opened a drawer and shook out a fresh dishtowel, which she tucked into the waistband of her skirt.
    “You don’t have to stay in here,” Graham protested. “You should go out to the living room and have a drink with the others.”
    Elspeth gave him a sardonic smile. “I’d rather stay in here,” she said. “And it looks like you could use the help.”
    Graham couldn’t argue with that. “Okay.”
    Elspeth opened the oven and looked at the turkey with narrowed eyes. Then she turned back to him and said, “Do you mind if I make the cranberry relish? I have a certain way I like to do it.”
    “Not at all,” Graham said.
    Elspeth was washing the cranberries in the sink when the kitchen door swung open, and Audra entered with Mrs. Bellamy. Mrs. Bellamy was a short lady in her late seventies, so stout that she appeared to have no breasts and no waist, like a giant pincushion covered in blue fabric. She had fluffy white hair, which curved back from her face in two smooth wings. She was carrying a platter of deviled eggs.
    “You remember Mrs. Bellamy,” Audra said. “This is my husband, Graham.”
    “Of course,” Graham said. “And this is Elspeth.”
    “Hello, dear,” Mrs. Bellamy said, shaking Elspeth’s hand. She looked at Graham. “And aren’t you smart, hiring a caterer!”
    “I’m an attorney,” Elspeth said coolly.
    “I’m not sure what you’ll make of my deviled eggs,” Mrs. Bellamy said, “but I always take them to parties. It’s my signature dish.”
    “And we appreciate it,” Audra said. “Let me just grab some napkins, and we can go on into the living room.”
    After they had gone, Graham put the butter and milk for the mashed potatoes into a small saucepan and put it on one of the back burners.
    “Oh, do you heat the milk for the potatoes?” Elspeth asked.
    “Yes,” Graham said. “Some people skip it but I think it makes a difference.”
    “And I use a potato ricer,” Elspeth said. “Though for years I used a hand mixer.”
    What a pleasure it was to have this conversation, thought Graham, who also used a potato ricer. He could remember that when he was having an affair with Audra, he could barely sit through dinner with Elspeth—she struck him as so maddeningly calm and deliberate. Always his mind would turn to what Audra might be doing at that moment, what she might be saying, and to whom. In fact, he couldn’t sit through dinner with Elspeth, and his main memory of those last few months was a constant restlessness at meals, hopping up and down to refill his glass, fetch the butter, look for pepper. And yet here in his kitchen with Elspeth, he felt deeply content. It seemed he had come full circle.
    As though his thoughts had summoned her, Audra pushed open the swinging door of the kitchen at that moment. “I’m sure it won’t be any trouble at all,” she called gaily to someone over her shoulder. She looked at Graham and Elspeth and said in a lower voice, “Apparently, Manny only eats food that’s white.”
    Then she backed out of the kitchen, and the door swung shut behind her.
    Elspeth and Graham looked at each other for a moment.
    “Is your life always like that?” Elspeth asked.
    “Yes,” said Graham.
    But the truth was more complicated than that. Because although Audra did make preposterous statements at least twice a week (more frequently if she had PMS), the truth was that Graham liked it. Or at least, he liked it and he disliked it in equal measure. But he didn’t tell Elspeth any of that. He let her think that life with Audra was maddening, and nothing more. It seemed the New Graham was capable of anything.

Graham had to admit it: he’d nourished a very small hope that this Thanksgiving would be a success. He had thought it was possible—or, more accurately, he had thought that it was not impossible—that this eclectic mix of people would gel into a party. But when he finally took a break from the kitchen and joined his guests in the living room, the atmosphere was far less like a party and a lot more like a group of strangers stranded at a bus station.
    There was even the equivalent of a drunken homeless person—Dr. Moley was nearly horizontal on the sofa, his drink balanced on his stomach. Pearl was perched on the other end of the sofa, speaking to him along the length of his body. “Clayton rearranged my recipe box,” she said. “He organized the recipes by frequency of use instead of alphabetically, and I have to say, I find it extremely efficient.”
    (Graham felt a slight stirring of interest in this, although he chalked it up to the extreme stress of the holiday.)
    Rosaria was sitting between Clayton and Alan, still folding origami.
    “That’s it, just tuck the corner in there,” Clayton said encouragingly. “I think you have natural talent.”
    Rosaria seemed to make herself even slighter, to take up even less space on the sofa. “Thank you,” she said softly.
    “You should join our club,” Clayton continued. “We meet on Saturdays.”
    “Clayton!” Alan said, furious. “You can’t just invite new members! We’re supposed to vote.”
    “It’s okay,” Rosaria said hurriedly. “I go to my sister’s on Saturdays, usually.”
    “What time?” Clayton asked.
    “All day,” Rosaria said. “From early in the morning until late at night.” She turned her enormous brown eyes on Julio, but he was stuck talking to Mrs. Bellamy about her cats.
    “Now, Arlo,” Mrs. Bellamy said in a happy, relishing voice, “Arlo I have to have professionally groomed because otherwise we run into a bit of a hairball problem. But Iris from kittenhood has always kept herself impeccably clean.”
    Dinah Moley was talking to Mr. Vargas and Lorelei. “Vincent nearly went to Juilliard,” she said. “If he hadn’t become a doctor, he probably would have been a professional pianist.”
    Lorelei frowned. “But I thought you said if he hadn’t become a doctor, he would have been a linguist.”
    “Vincent is a man of many talents,” Dinah said firmly, and then all three of them glanced at Dr. Moley, whose eyelids were now flickering, and conversation sort of stalled in that group.
    Audra and Don and Elspeth were sitting together, and Don and Elspeth were discussing Starbucks’ stock performance, and Audra said, “The whole Starbucks experience has just been ruined for me since they started listing the calories next to all the drinks.”
    There was no conversation here that Graham wanted to take part in, and even worse, no conversation that seemed to want him in it. It was dark out now, and he could see his reflection in the windows, a lone figure looming over all the others.
    He helped himself to one of Mrs. Bellamy’s deviled eggs, so it would look like he’d come out just for that, and went back into the kitchen.

The table groaned with food, and despite himself, Graham’s spirits rose. The turkey rested on the platter in golden-brown splendor, garnished with sprigs of rosemary and wedges of lemon and bright red pomegranate seeds. All of Audra’s pretty serving dishes were out, filled with the mushroom-and-walnut stuffing, the white-wine gravy, the roasted carrots with dill, the pears and red onions, the maple-whipped sweet potatoes, Elspeth’s cranberry relish. The pure decadence and plentitude of Thanksgiving dinner had always appealed to Graham, and he took no less pleasure in it this year just because he had prepared it for people he didn’t especially like.
    “Everyone, come to dinner!” Audra called. Then she said to Graham in a lower voice, “Why did you switch all the name cards around?”
    “Because I couldn’t stand the thought of sitting next to Pearl,” he answered, but that was not the truth. Graham had rearranged the seating on a sort of Asperger’s continuum with Julio at the head of the high-functioning end and Manny and the rest of the origami club at the low-functioning end. Rosaria sat on Julio’s left, Graham on his right, Audra, Elspeth, and everyone else in the middle. Matthew was seated next to Graham because Graham couldn’t bear to see him down at the other end.
    “Well, now!” Mrs. Bellamy said brightly as she sat down next to Elspeth. “I think it is so modern and lovely the way you have the doorman and the caterer eat with us.”
    Graham thought Elspeth might stab Mrs. Bellamy with her salad fork.
    Graham had prepared a plate for Manny: a slice of white bread with the crusts cut off, some cubes of feta cheese, a container of plain yogurt, and a few marshmallows. He was really quite pleased with his ability to improvise on short notice. But it turned out that Manny not only insisted on all-white food, he wanted an all-white plate, too. So while everyone else flapped open their napkins and filled up their water glasses, Audra tapped off to the kitchen and came back with a white fondue plate. Graham could have imagined it, but he was pretty sure the rest of the origami club looked at the fondue plate with its segregated compartments wistfully.
    “Here you are,” Audra said to Manny just as though he were a normal person. “We don’t have any white utensils, but if you need some, perhaps Julio will run down to the deli for plastic ones.”
    “Oh, please, no,” Manny demurred. “I’m not particular.”
    Graham looked at Elspeth, and their eyes locked for a second. He looked away and stood up to carve the turkey.
    “I’m glad we’re eating early because Vincent and I are flying to Florence tomorrow,” Dinah said.
    “I folded an origami Palazzo Vecchio once,” Clayton said to her. “It had over eight hundred folds.”
    “Well,” she said, “that must have been very challenging.”
    “Not for me,” Clayton said, wounded, and shifted in his chair so that he was facing slightly away from her.
    Something strange was happening to Graham. His vision wavered, then cleared, and then wavered again. The talk around him suddenly seemed like a high, toneless buzz, making his head ache. Random snatches of conversation reached him: Manny telling someone he hadn’t eaten colored food since 2002; Dr. Moley saying that no other animal besides a human can get a rash from poison ivy; Mr. Vargas describing a sexual position called “suspended congress” to Audra, who said, dubiously, “That’s not what I’m used to.”
    Graham was having trouble swallowing. His saliva felt thick and mucousy in his mouth. He could barely stand. The carving fork was already buried in the turkey, and now Graham dug the knife in, point first, like a pirate sinking a grappling hook into the plank of a ship. He swayed. The turkey kept him upright while, thankfully, his vision cleared.
    “I feel funny,” Rosaria said suddenly.
    “Me too,” said Pearl.
    Lorelei’s husband, Don, jumped up suddenly and ran for the bathroom, his heavy body tilted forward and thick legs pumping. He looked like a linebacker rushing a pass down the hallway. It was perfect, really, for Thanksgiving, Graham thought distantly.
    Then Mrs. Bellamy leaned over and threw up on the rug.

Of course, it was Mrs. Bellamy’s deviled eggs. Later, Graham would have an eerily vivid picture of the scene: Mrs. Bellamy tottering around her kitchen, humming to herself while she whipped up her signature dish, using elderly eggs and ancient mayonnaise, because how quickly did a single person go through either of those ingredients? Or perhaps she made them in the morning and left them out on the counter to remind herself to take them? And who was to say she didn’t help herself to a few deviled eggs for lunch, pushing them whole into her mouth in the greedy, unself-conscious way people are free to do unobserved in their own kitchens? Oh, Graham could see it, the fat, slippery egg whites disappearing into her mouth, the yolky yellow smears on the corner of her lips. He would never feel the same about deviled eggs again.
    But all that came later. At the time, the emergency was hot, and there was only thought for the most basic triage.
    “My rug!” Audra cried. “Someone get the salt!”
    Rosaria and Pearl bolted from the table. Graham collapsed back into his seat. Julio jumped up to kneel by Mrs. Bellamy’s chair. Dr. Moley took her pulse, and Dinah Moley began taking a survey of who had eaten the deviled eggs.
    It turned out that seven of them had: Mrs. Bellamy, Rosaria, Pearl, Graham, Don, Lorelei, and Audra. Audra felt fine (she had a very strong stomach, like a Doberman); Graham and Lorelei felt shaky; Rosaria, Pearl, and Don were in various bathrooms; and Mrs. Bellamy was tipped back in her chair, panting, her eyes ringed with white, her face pale and slick with sweat, her skin as shiny as greased plastic.
    Matthew couldn’t stop staring at the puddle of vomit on the rug. “Who’s going to clean that up?” he asked.
    “Mrs. Bellamy needs to go to the ER,” Dr. Moley said. “We can walk her over. It’s only a block.”
    Dr. Moley offered to accompany Graham and Mrs. Bellamy to the ER, and for a few minutes, everyone was frantically pulling on coats and searching for bags and finding a blanket to drape over Mrs. Bellamy’s shoulders since her coat was downstairs in her apartment.
    Don and Lorelei left, Don with his arm slung around Lorelei’s neck. Rosaria had emerged from the hall bathroom looking even more fragile and fawnlike than before, and Julio was instantly beside her, his hand cupping her elbow, leading her toward the door. He grabbed her coat and his, and then they were gone.
    Pearl came out of the master bathroom looking like a woman who had fought hard with a purse snatcher—breathless, disheveled, frightened—and Audra said to Clayton, “You go ahead and take Pearl home.”
    “Oh, Pearl’s a warhorse,” Clayton said confidently, rocking back and forth on his heels, his hands stuffed in his coat pockets.
    Graham realized then that Clayton and Pearl, as well as Alan and Manny and Mr. Vargas—what Graham thought of as the low-functioning end of the table—were all planning to come with them to the hospital, as though this were just the next level of entertainment.
    They went outside. The night sky was beautiful—thick, frosty, starry. Graham and Dr. Moley supported Mrs. Bellamy between them. Elspeth walked behind them, carrying Mrs. Bellamy’s purse and rooting through it for an insurance card. Everyone else followed along, Matthew holding Audra’s hand.
    “I hope this doesn’t take too long,” Mrs. Moley said. “We have to fly to Florence tomorrow.”
    “Oh, are you going to Florence?” Audra asked, deadpan, and Graham’s heart, which had been cold for months now, flamed with desire for one bright moment, and then was ash.
    The ER was mercifully uncrowded. Dr. Moley signed Mrs. Bellamy in at the front desk, and she was whisked back to an exam room. The rest of them drifted over to the waiting room and sat in uncomfortable chairs with curved wooden arms. Alan complained that there were no flat surfaces for folding.
    Graham sat between Audra and Elspeth. Mr. Vargas sat on Audra’s other side. “So this man I met on the Internet lives in Hong Kong,” Mr. Vargas was saying, “and he keeps talking about me going out and him getting me an apartment, but I’m not so sure.”
    “Well, of course, you aren’t,” Audra said sympathetically. “You don’t want to be someone’s kept boy.”
    “Are you kidding?” Mr. Vargas said. “I’d love to be someone’s kept boy. I’m just not sure I want to be kept in Hong Kong.”
    The woman from the front desk looked at them all curiously. Graham thought that it must seem to her like Mrs. Bellamy had a large, devoted family, that they must look like a group of loving relatives rather than just a bunch of people with nothing better to do.

It was like Graham was trapped in some awful social quicksand, and the more he tried to free himself, the deeper he sank. It seemed that he would never get out of the hospital and back to the apartment without at least one unwanted guest.
    Mrs. Bellamy was admitted to the hospital overnight for observation, so she was no problem, but everyone else was determined to return. The Old Graham might have let them; the New Graham could not bear it. And yet what could he do when Alan began wondering aloud about turkey sandwiches, and Manny said he had low blood sugar, and Clayton said Thanksgiving didn’t seem like Thanksgiving without at least one slice of pumpkin pie? Graham was afraid to open his mouth for fear the quicksand would flow in and choke him. He would sink without a trace.
    Of course it was Audra who saved him. “Goodness,” she said to Manny and Alan, “weren’t you smart to bring your backpacks! We won’t have to go back for them.”
    “We always bring our backpacks with us,” Manny told her. “We don’t want to get trapped somewhere without origami paper.”
    “Well, now, that’s very forward thinking,” Audra said. “Perhaps after you and Alan help Clayton get Pearl home, you can all fold something together.”
    “I guess we could order Chinese food,” Clayton said thoughtfully.
    “White rice, though,” Manny said quickly.
    “So, let’s see,” Audra said. “We’ll need one-two-three taxis. One to Clayton’s house, one for the Moleys, and one for Mr. Vargas. It’s so late! You all must want to get home. Thank goodness no one has any travel plans tomorrow.”
    (It was possible that she didn’t say that last sentence, that Graham only imagined she did because he wanted to say it so badly himself.)
    “Dr. Moley, can I ask you to flag the taxis for us?” Audra said. “Come on, everyone.” She put her hand on Graham’s arm and whispered, “I’ll take Matthew and see you at home.”
    And they were off, everyone obediently trailing behind Audra like the world’s oldest kindergartners, and Graham and Elspeth were alone.
    Elspeth wore a pale yellow coat, almost the same color as her hair. She looked, as always, tidy and poised and slightly starched, more like Graham’s vision of a nurse than any nurse actually here in the hospital.
    “What a night,” she said to him.
    He smiled. “It won’t be good publicity for your catering business.”
    She tightened the belt of her coat. “It was good to see you,” she said. She paused. “Perhaps we’ll see each other again soon.”
    “I’d like that,” Graham said.
    Her eyes flashed up to his instantly.
    “We’ll figure this out,” he said. “How to be friends.”
    She nodded, lifting her chin slightly. “If you want.”
    Without really planning to, Graham stepped forward and took her in his arms. He felt her stiffen, and then she sighed and relaxed. She leaned her head on his shoulder, and he thought of how long and slender her neck was, how vulnerable. He put his hand on the back of her head and held her that way for a long, long moment, not caring if anyone saw them. He didn’t do it because he felt guilty, or because he felt he owed it to her, or even because he wanted to. He did it because it was the one thing he felt he could do right.

He waited on the sidewalk with Elspeth until a cab came. She got into it the prim, sexy way women wearing narrow skirts always get into cabs: with a slight swing of her hips and a little hop. Graham leaned forward to close the door, but she was already pulling it shut from the inside. That was Elspeth.
    He began walking home. He should have been exhausted, but he felt energetic. Maybe Audra would be waiting for him with a bottle of wine. He would make turkey sandwiches, and they would drink wine and discuss Thanksgiving, and she would say, as she did after every dinner party they had, “On a scale of Delightful to Never Again, where would you rate it?” Graham looked forward to that suddenly, looked forward to being with Audra.
    And then tomorrow he would call Elspeth, and that was something to look forward to also. He hadn’t realized he intended to call her until the plan was there, already in his mind. He would call Elspeth, and they would meet for drinks, maybe at the same bar they’d gone to before. It felt like the right decision, as certain as death and taxes, as inevitable as bifocals and paper cuts and bad TV on Saturday nights.
    This was where he had gone wrong all those years ago. He had gone too suddenly—too completely—from Elspeth to Audra, when really, he needed both of them in his life. He was finally at a place where he and Elspeth could have a relationship that was free of bitterness, free of guilt. They could be close again. Not romantically—he didn’t want that—but close, intimate, even loving in some way that only former spouses could be.
    This idea seemed so clear to him that for a moment he wondered why he hadn’t thought of it before. He felt something in his chest clutch and release, the way it felt when he thought he’d left his wallet in a restaurant and then touched his pocket and realized he still had it with him. Of course. He remembered. Things were different now.

Katherine Heiny has published stories in Glimmer Train, the New Yorker, Ploughshares, the Southern Review, and elsewhere, presented on Selected Shorts, and performed off-Broadway. She lives in Washington DC, with her husband and two children.

“Lame Duck” appears in our Summer 2014 issue.