Not many minutes after Marshall arrived at Ellen’s apartment the doorbell chimed. He had just draped his jacket and tie over a chair back and was unbuttoning his shirt. Ellen had slipped behind the partition into the kitchenette, and he was waiting for her to reappear and respond. When the chimes sounded again, Marshall felt a surge of anger at the interruption even though he assumed it was only a delivery. With both their schedules, they had such little time for their affair. Just arranging this meeting had taken a week of phone calls, coded messages on voice mail.
“Would you please get that,” Ellen said.
“Were you expecting anybody?” he asked her.
“I’m doing something in the refrigerator,” she told him.
When he opened the door, there stood Susan, his wife, and their oldest friends, Al and Cheryl. “Oh shit!” Marshall’s heart turned to lead.
But instead of cursing him, Susan was smiling. So were Al and Cheryl. Al pumped his hand, Cheryl kissed his cheek, Susan embraced him.
“What’s going on?” His brain reeled. This was Ellen’s apartment.
“Surprise!” Al, Cheryl, and Susan shouted in unison, and Al held up a bottle of chilled Moët.
The two women kissed him again, Cheryl on his ear, Susan on the lips. “Best wishes!”
“For what?” Marshall asked.
Al mock punched his shoulder. “Don’t be so coy, you old sonofagun.”
Marshall gave them a bewildered look. “I really don’t know.”
“Pull the other one,” Cheryl said, and Susan laughed as if she had said something really funny.
Marshall kept waiting for Ellen to appear from the kitchenette, for the screaming to start, the ranting and the sobbing. He tensed ready to shield his face, sure someone—perhaps all of them—was going to strike out at him. But Susan and Cheryl each took a hand and led him into the living room and sat him on the sofa between them. “We want to have you all to ourselves for a while,” they said.
“A while before what?” he asked.
“Before the others want you.”
“Who? What others?”
“Oh no,” Cheryl said. “We’re not going to spoil the surprise.” Al was standing at Ellen’s hutch, collecting champagne glasses from behind the glass doors.
Marshall peeked at his watch. It was 12:30, and he had a 3 p.m. business appointment. Ellen had devised excuses for a long lunch, their last chance to make love for several weeks, until after her Denver trip and the launching of his new project. But now with Susan close beside him, actually touching thigh to thigh on the cushions of Ellen’s sofa, he felt hollow from navel to knee.
Then Ellen stepped from the kitchen carrying a silver tray of hors d’oeuvres that she placed on the coffee table with a smile for Susan and Cheryl, even nodding across the room to Al.
Marshall clenched the sides of the cushion and waited for words, for Susan to fling guacamole into Ellen’s face. But Susan just nodded thanks. How do you know each other? Marshall wanted to ask her but instead folded his hands and tried to pretend that he was a stranger in that apartment himself.
He couldn’t help comparing the two women—Ellen narrow-waisted and lean, the waves of her golden hair getting longer and longer since they had met eight months before. Susan was compact, small-breasted but round and firm, the female shape that had appealed to him most when they married a dozen years ago. And it still did, he realized, even though he was very attracted to Ellen. He was attracted to them both. He found each woman extremely appealing even though he felt no desire at that moment, as if the condition of arousal were a memory from a distant past.
“How did you get here?” He turned to Cheryl because asking her would sound more neutral.
“I mean, for what?”
She squeezed his hand in both hers. “Silly man. We’re here because of you.”
“But why this place? This apartment? It’s Ellen’s.” He spoke the name and expected thunder, as if he had violated some terrible taboo.
“The door” was all Cheryl said, though the chimes didn’t sound until after she spoke.
Ellen slipped the chain and opened it wide. Marshall’s entire department crowded four deep in the hallway, all the way back to the elevator—his secretary Beth, Charlie, Ted, Vivian, Lenny, everyone, even his vice president, Vince Bohm. They swarmed inside with eager greetings, giving Ellen and Susan pecks on the cheek. Beth hugged both women. She was weeping. Marshall rose as she swept toward him. She threw her arms around him, kissed him on the mouth, and burst into tears.
“What’s wrong?” he asked her, genuinely concerned, convinced something terrible had happened and no one had the courage to tell him.
“You’re such a wonderful man!”
She had worked for him since his promotion, and until this moment he’d never even been sure if she liked him or not—the way she always said Marshall, as if he should have another name, as if he should be someone else. “But what have I done?” he said, trying not to sound desperate.
“What?” She wiped her tears and started laughing. The others were laughing too. “What?” they all said in unison. “Sounds like false modesty to me,” Vince Bohm said, and the people from the office waited a second for his face to take on an amused expression before they laughed even louder.
Al was passing out champagne, and Cheryl helped Ellen serve, matching tea aprons tied around their waists. Beth was kissing Susan again. “You must be so pleased,” Beth said. “I am, I am,” Susan answered, running fingers back through her hair the way she always did in moments of perfect pleasure.
Every now and then, over the constant murmur of earnest conversations, Marshall heard the chimes and could make out more people in the doorway. The crowd had become so thick the newcomers only had an opportunity to squeeze his hand and say something like “You’re terrific” before the next wave displaced them. He thought he saw several people from his high school class who had dropped out of his life twenty-five years ago. But they disappeared before he had a chance to recall their names. People spilled from the living room into Ellen’s bedroom where the spread was folded back carefully, exposing a fluffed pillow and a corner of pink satin sheet.
Something had been bothering him, like an object just beyond the edge of his vision, and then he realized what it was. Everyone was very dressed, the women in cocktail gowns, the men in dark suits and even tuxedos. He was the only one in shirtsleeves. As he buttoned the collar, he looked back toward the chair where he had placed his tie and jacket. But they were gone. Someone probably had knocked them to the floor, was stepping on them at that moment.
Before he could move, two couples approached him, arms spread, grinning widely. “What a guy!” one of the men said. Marshall had a vague recollection of them. They might have been neighbors, but not from now, from someplace he had lived years before. “It’s wonderful to be here,” a woman said, embracing and overwhelming him with a mist of perfume. “Thanks for coming,” he thought to say. “Wouldn’t have missed it,” the other man told him.
He felt someone tapping his back, a bit too eager, a bit too hard. He swung around about to snap annoyance when he saw his son and daughter, and in an instant was embracing them both in the sweep of his arms. “But you’re in college,” he finally said.
“Not today.” Todd grinned widely. “I got out of two midterms when I told my profs what was happening,” Crystal said.
“What is happening?” Marshall asked quickly, hoping he would finally get an answer if his question took them by surprise.
“Oh, Daddy!” Crystal waved a hand as if he were beyond belief.
“How did you get here?” Both their schools were halfway across the country.
“Who sent the tickets?”
“They came in the mail.”
“But who invited you?” Marshall gestured at everyone gathered around them, the instant smiles when people noticed he was glancing in their direction.
“Mom called us,” Todd said.
“Your mother!” Marshall gripped a chair back.
“Susan asked her to.”
“Come on, Dad,” Crystal said. “It couldn’t have been that much of a surprise.”
“I didn’t know anything,” he protested. “I still don’t.”
“We should go say hello to some people, shouldn’t we, Sis?” Todd said, and Marshall was sure he had winked at Crystal. “Wait,” he called, but they were gone.
“Marshall.” His name was spoken was so softly he couldn’t be sure he had actually heard it.
But the voice repeated it, close to him, followed by a hand on his sleeve.”Connie?” he said as he turned, afraid that it would be her. He looked down into the once familiar face of his first wife, his children’s mother, now marked with the softening of middle age, her hair turning grey. Her eyes were smiling. The last time he had seen her, ten years ago in a lawyer’s office, he had slammed the door on her rage, a stream of curses that damned him and Susan both. “I couldn’t help falling in love,” he had told her once before that day, knowing he was making a feeble excuse for destroying her life. He would have stayed with her if he could, but back then it would have killed him not to be with Susan.
“Why are you here?” he said, unable to imagine a good reason.
“It would have been awful to miss this day.”
“After all that I did to you?”
“How can that matter now?”
“Do you know whose apartment this is?” For some reason he could ask that of her but not of Susan.
“And you’re still here?”
Connie was about to answer when Cheryl come up to her, and the two women embraced. “Oh, my dear!” Connie said. They had been confidants once, before Marshall met Susan, when Cheryl and Al were the couple closest to Marshall and Connie just as they were now to Marshall and Susan. For a while Cheryl and Connie used to call each other, and Cheryl still sent birthday cards.
Marshall pulled Al into a corner. “You’re my best friend. If you won’t tell me what’s going on, nobody will.”
“You should have seen your face.” Al seized him by the shoulders. “I wish I’d had a camera.”
“Why didn’t you?” Marshall asked, as if that were important.
“The one screw up. I guess we all thought somebody else was bringing one.”
“If I had pictures, I could believe all this really was happening.”
“Hey, it looks like people need more drinks.” Al disappeared into the kitchenette.
Before Marshall was alone for a second, Susan came up beside him. “I think it all worked out very nicely, don’t you?”
“Did you know that Connie is here?”
She nodded. “I was just talking to her.”
“How could I not do that today?”
“And what about Ellen?”
“Ellen? She’s very attractive. But then she would be, wouldn’t she?”
From across the room, Ellen blew him a kiss.
“It’s not what you think it is,” Marshall said. “I don’t really know what it is.”
“That’s not important now.” Susan squeezed his arm.
“No. Not any more.”
“Who planned this?” Marshall asked.
“Everybody. All of us.”
“Why here? Why today? What’s different?”
Susan squeezed his arm.
Marshall clutched her hand and tried to meet her eyes, but he was tear-blinded. He turned his face toward the wall and could not stop sobbing, ashamed at the quivering of his body, the loud gasping noises that rose from his throat. He couldn’t hear another sound, sure the others were all staring at him, sure he was ruining everything for them by making such a fool of himself. He tried to call out to them but choked on their names. When his chest stopped heaving, he realized that he no longer held Susan’s hand.
When he turned toward the room and opened his eyes, everyone was gone, the apartment empty and still. Plates lay on the furniture and window ledges with remnants of food, glasses tipped beside them, dozens of empty bottles on the hutch.
He saw his tie and jacket. Someone had folded them neatly and placed them on the sofa.
“Susan!” he cried, “Ellen! Connie!” His voice echoed and faded. Night had fallen outside the window, an absolute darkness.
Marshall slid the tie under his shirt collar, refusing to glance in a mirror as he adjusted the knot; then he slipped on his jacket. He stood with his hand clenched on the knob, turning it slowly, certain that when the door opened the hallway would be empty.
Walter Cummins has published six short story collections—Witness, Where We Live, Local Music, The End of the Circle, The Lost Ones, and Habitat: Stories of Bent Realism (pending 2013). More than 100 of his stories, as well as memoirs, essays, and reviews, have appeared in magazines such as Kansas Quarterly, Virginia Quarterly Review, New Letters, Under the Sun, Confrontation, Bellevue Literary Review, Connecticut Review, The Laurel Review, Other Voices, Georgetown Review, Contrary, Sonora Review, Abiko Quarterly, Weber Studies, Midwest Quarterly, West Branch, South Carolina Review, Crosscurrents, Crescent Review, The MacGuffin, in book collections, and on the Web. With Thomas E. Kennedy, he is co-publisher of Serving House Books, an outlet for novels, memoirs, and story, poetry, and essay collections. For more than twenty years, he was editor of The Literary Review. He is on the editorial board of Web Del Sol and the FDU Press.