Lifestyle & Culture

Weekend Reading: The Guy We Didn’t Invite to the Orgy

David Ebenbach teaches creative writing at Georgetown University. He also writes poetry and poignant short stories and has a novel coming  out in June. This current short-story collection, The Guy We Didn’t Invite to the Orgy, and other stories, won a 2016 Juniper Literary Prize from the University of Massachusetts Press and the UMass MFA program for poets and writers. Ebenbach will be at Kramerbooks on Monday, February 27, 2017 at 6:30pm. He will be joined by Holly Karapetkova, author of Towline, for an evening of poetry and short stories. The following is the story “The Four Seasons Club,” from Ebenbach’s Orgy.

GROUPS ARE DIFFICULT. I mean, individual people are already complicated enough, but with a little attention I think you can get to know them and kind of handle all their wackiness head-on, and in the end I like people an awful lot when you can get them by themselves. I mean, I have friends. But it’s so much harder with groups. With groups, you’ve got all the individual people and all their interrelationships piled up and then there’s some overall groupness that just sends things right over the edge and into crazy. The whole being more insane than the sum of its parts and so on. It’s how riots break out, and everyone wearing the same shirt, and Moonie weddings. And so I never joined the Girl Scouts or a sorority or a book club. I just watch those groups from a distance, doing all their mystifying, weirdo things, and keep my interactions as one-on-one as possible.

Take the Four Seasons Club for example. That was a time when I gave it a shot, despite myself. I was in a place in my life where I felt like something was going on around the corner that I didn’t know about—every corner, all the corners—and I wanted to know what was going on. You could call it curiosity. I go through phases, probably like a lot of people. Cycles. So I was at work, working, and I got this e-mail invitation from a woman named Autumn Kling—For everything there is a season! she wrote—and for some reason I didn’t toss it right into the digital garbage. I didn’t even know her, or either of the other two women on the e-mail list, but I didn’t delete it. Instead I read the whole thing, and then I read it again, and chewed on the knuckle of my thumb, and thought about it.

The story was that Autumn, who was in Human Resources at the telecom company where we all worked, had found us all through our personnel files—she noticed Jenny Winters first, Sarah Somer second, and me last. I had pretty clearly been the stretch. I guess there aren’t any Springmans or Wellsprings or Springers on the payroll! Autumn wrote. That’s how much this mattered to her: when she couldn’t find the whole season, she was willing to settle for a person whose first name was April. In any case, we were told that the first meeting of the Four Seasons Club would be held on the following Tuesday night at the Four Seasons Tavern on Harmon Road, right in that neutral month of February, and during happy hour. We need to complete nature’s cycle! she wrote, something like an invitation to form a coven.

The thing is that it’s one thing to go out of your way to find a group, and it’s a very different thing to be invited into one, to think that the coven is depending on you, that it might not even function if you weren’t there. I don’t know what it took for Jenny or Sarah to decide to say yes—maybe nothing; maybe they get these kind of invites all the time—but I know that I only ruminated for a few minutes and then I wrote back, told Autumn I would be coming. And then I chewed on my knuckle some more.

On the following Tuesday night, I was the second to arrive; Autumn, good hostess, was already there, right in the middle

Author David Ebenbach. / Photo by Marcy Hairston.

of the main dining room of the Four Seasons Tavern. She spotted me as I came in—probably recognized me from my disaster of a personnel file photo—before I could pick her out from among the scatter of people at other tables. She waved a hand in the air. “April!” she called. “Spring has sprung!”

I had dressed up a little for the evening, but not, I hoped, in a way that would make me look like I was trying too hard. I was wearing a blouse and rust-brown jacket and skirt that seemed like the kind of thing you might just wear to work in the Research Department, if you were a particularly stylish person in the Research Department, though I am not. The other people in my department kept noticing my outfit that day and asking me if it was my birthday or something.

When I went over to Autumn, I saw that she was ankle-deep in the first half of a happy hour two-for-one drink special. I shook her hand. Her short hair was very neat, dark and neat and short.

“Nice brooch,” she said. I had worn a ceramic flower lapel pin, for my season. That had been one of the requests in the e-mail invite. Seasonally appropriate accessories.

“Nice necklace,” I said, sitting down. There was a bright orange pendant in the shape of a leaf hanging down to the opening in her blouse. I had also noticed that she was wearing a rust-brown suit, a lot like mine. We were very rust-brown together. Probably I was supposed to be in green.

“Want something to drink?” she said, already signaling the waitress.

“Sure,” I said, and then I fidgeted with my flower pin a little before I said, “So how does this work? What do we do, in the Four Seasons Club?”

Sarah looked back at me with nervous eyes, almost as though I’d raised a hand to possibly smack her in the face. “It’s really just an idea for a social thing,” she said. “You never know what’ll make people click.”

“Right,” I said.

“I bet you’re beautiful when you smile,” she said.

One-on-one was a little awkward with Autumn, as it happened. I was in fact kind of relieved when Sarah Somer and Jenny Winters arrived together a couple of minutes later, practically arm in arm. They were both in jackets of their own, ink-black in both cases, and they both had this very straight and thin auburn hair.

“Wow,” Autumn said after she’d waved them over. “You look like sisters.”

“It’s a little bit like we are sisters,” Jenny said, laughing. I studied her icicle earrings and the sun pendant necklace on Sarah. Very nice.

“Oh,” Autumn said. There was a ping of disappointment in her voice. “Do you already know each other?”

“Nah,” Sarah said, dropping herself into a chair as if from a great height. “We just met just now in the parking lot, but we both have the same kind of car and it turns out we started our jobs at the same time—anyway, sometimes you hit it off right away. You never know.”

“I was just saying that,” Autumn said, pointing to me for verification.

“It’s true,” I said.

“She’s spring,” Autumn said, pointing again.

“April,” I said. “The cruelest month.” It was one of my habitual openers. Nobody had much to say to it.

We all got drinks, which had the potential to be a kind of immediate bond; each one of us was half of a two-drink special. The equinoxes and the solstices. Though nobody said anything about that aloud, and I might have been the only one thinking it.

“I feel like we’re some kind of mythical council,” I said instead, “meeting to decide what the weather’s going to be like for the rest of the year. Like Sarah and Jenny will start fighting about what happens on Groundhog Day or something.”

Autumn turned those nervous eyes on me again, and Sarah and Jenny laughed politely, and agreed that they loved that movie. I decided I’d better stay quiet for a while. What I’m trying to say is that doing group conversation is like playing catch in a pitch-dark living room.

For her part, Autumn jumped into the breach. “I made name tags,” she said, rummaging in her purse.

Jenny and Sarah looked at each other. “There are only four of us,” Sarah said.

Autumn paused with the tags in her hand. “That’s true,” she said. When she set the tags down, I could see that she’d really gone to town decorating them—red leaves on her own, snowflakes on Jenny’s, and so on.

“We could wear them anyway,” Jenny said.

“No—it’s a good point. They’re unnecessary,” Autumn said. She soldiered on. “Anyway, I thought we could start by introducing ourselves, saying a little something about ourselves. And maybe about our names.”

We all sat there a moment.

“I’ll start,” Autumn offered. “I’ve been in the Human Resources department for six years—my first job out of college. I’m single.” With that last fact, she held up crossed fingers and grimaced, angling for luck in the universe. “And my parents named me Autumn because it was their favorite season. I wasn’t born then, though. I was born in July.”

“Oh,” I said. “So you were conceived in the fall, anyway.”

Sarah and Jenny looked at me sympathetically. It seemed that they had come to the same conclusion but hadn’t intended to mention it. I got all that and recommitted myself to silence.

The metaphorical microphone passed to Jenny. She cocked her head to the side, which made her icicle earrings swing. “Hm,” she said. “So I guess I’ve been on staff pretty much since graduating college, too. What was that, three years ago?”

“Hey,” Sarah said, “same year!” They didn’t do a high-five, but their eyes did a high-five.

“Awesome,” Jenny said. “How have we never met? Sales and Marketing.”

“I know,” Sarah said, putting her hands up in the air. “Crazy.”

Jenny glanced at Autumn. “What was the other part? Right. Our names. Really?” She glanced at Autumn again. “Okay. Well, I’m not sure what to say about it. My father’s last name was Winters, so my last name is Winters. It wasn’t a conscious choice.”

Sarah nodded. “Yeah. Pretty much me, too,” she said. “And I don’t even know for sure if Somer means the season Summer or if it’s a profession or something. It might be German. Swedish?”

And that was it for Sarah. Somehow it caught me by surprise, everyone turning their heads to look at me next—I think I’d forgotten that I was involved.

“Ah—okay,” I said. “Well, I guess I’ve been here for a few years. I’m in Research.” I did a theatrical cringe, though my department provoked no great reaction from the other seasons. “Anyway, it turns out that April means ‘Aphrodite’s Month,’ but that wasn’t when my parents conceived me. But my great-grandmother was named Anna, and I guess she loved the spring. That’s what my mother told me. So they named me after her, kind of.”

Everyone nodded. I nodded, too. It was nice to think about that for a minute—my great-grandmother, who I’d never met, loving the spring. I mean, everyone does, but it must have been particularly something for her, for my parents to pass it on as a name for their only child.

“Okay,” Autumn said, looking at each of us in turn. She seemed to be trying to decide about something. Then she said, “Why not? I was thinking we could each say what our favorite season is, and why.”

I looked back at Autumn. She was, I saw, sort of neutral on the pretty-to-unpretty scale. Skinny, her face a little long, her ears a little big, but nothing very dramatic. I wondered what she’d looked like in middle school.

“Okay,” Sarah said, though there was a narrow edge of skepticism in her voice. “I mean, honestly I do like the summer. I always liked the beach. Do you want me to say more?”

“Sure—if you want,” Autumn said. She definitely wanted something more, though I had a feeling she would have trouble articulating what it was. I was now seeing the situation almost entirely through a middle school lens. Groups really start forming in middle school, and, from what little I can tell, that experience forms the basis for all the groups that happen in later life. And so here we were: Jenny and Sarah were cool girls; Autumn was not. And me? Well, I was half of Autumn’s two-for-one drink special, for starters.

“Um,” Sarah said. “I mean, going to the beach, summer vacation. . . .” She looked over at Jenny as though for assistance.

“Ice cream,” Jenny said with a little shrug.

I almost remarked aloud on how Jenny Winters had just, without even trying, brought up something frozen. I caught myself in time, though. Instead I found myself suggesting, “Summer has the longest days of the year.”

“That’s true,” Jenny said, putting her hand on my arm. “That’s a great thing about summer. And that’s one thing I can’t stand about winter. It’s so dark.”

“So do you love winter or hate it?” I said, feeling that Jenny and I were having an intense moment. One-on-one, of course.

She sighed and sat back in her seat, crossed her arms in thought. I could hear her foot tapping over the adult listening music playing quietly in the background. “There are things I like about every season,” she said, diplomatically, “and there are things I don’t like about every season.” She turned to Autumn with an apology in her eyes. “I don’t think I could pick a favorite. Any day when it’s not too windy is fine with me.”

“That’s okay,” Autumn said.

“Wind is the worst,” Sarah said.

My turn again. “I’m going to go with spring,” I said. “It was good enough for my grandmother. Plus flowers.”

Everyone started nodding, their faces saying You’ve got to give her that one.

Autumn said her favorite season was fall. She just loved the leaves. And you definitely had to give her that one.

A little pause settled in. Autumn looked around at us, face to face to face. She seemed very nervous.

“So, now what?” Sarah said.

“Um. Well, let’s see. We did the introductions and the names and the seasons.” Autumn started to dig around in her purse. I was pretty sure there wasn’t anything in her purse, but we all watched her dig.

“Anybody know any relevant show tunes?” I said. Blankness. I mean, I was getting absolutely nothing at all. Aside from that moment with Jenny about the length of days, I was swinging and missing all over the place.

Autumn stopped with her purse. She was still looking into it, but not digging. “Well,” she said. “I don’t know.”

Nobody said anything.

“I guess I thought we’d be off and running by now,” she continued. “I didn’t have anything else. I just thought if we all got together that something would happen. That we could all connect. You never know what’ll make people click.”

“That’s true,” Sarah said, but carefully.

“I mean,” Autumn continued, “I have no idea what makes people click.” She stared into her drink. She hadn’t had too much of it, but she’d probably had more than enough anyway.

Jenny downed the rest of her own drink, which had generally disappeared pretty quickly. “You know, it’s no big deal,” she said. “It’s actually a really nice idea.”

“For sure,” Sarah said.

Jenny said, “I should just check on what time it is, anyway.” She pulled a cell phone out.

Sarah turned to her with intent eyes, communicating eyes. “Oh—are you going to that thing?” she said.

It was a kind of awful moment. I think everyone in a ten-mile radius—even Autumn—could tell that there was no thing to go to. I watched Jenny decide whether she was going to collaborate or not. She decided quickly.

“You know, I am,” she said.

I glanced over at a grim Autumn. “Absolutely,” she said. “Of course.” She turned to me. “Why don’t you go to that thing, too?”

I think the three of us were a little shocked by the abrupt shift in tone. Amazingly, a little part of me was simultaneously aware that I was suddenly part of a three-of-us. Later on I was going to be embarrassed about that awareness.

Jenny and Sarah and I stood up from our seats, from our glasses. Mine was mostly full and I found myself wondering if Autumn would drink the rest of it after we left. We each put some money down on the table—a good deal more than was necessary, really.

“Thanks,” Sarah said. “It was nice to meet you.”

“It was definitely nice to meet you,” Jenny said.

I didn’t know what to say. I put my hand out and Autumn shook it stoically.

Then the three of us walked out of the Four Seasons Tavern. We’d barely hit the brisk outdoors, the front door had barely closed, before Jenny and Sarah started Oh-my-Godding.

“Wow,” one said.

“I know,” the other said. “Wow.”

I let them go ahead into the cold parking lot. It wasn’t a decision, really. I just stopped walking. As I stood there they wandered off to their cars, which were of course parked next to one another. They looked back in my direction, waved in tandem. I waved back. I’m not a jerk or anything.

That was how it ended. I stood there and thought about how it was true, that you never knew what would make people click. But not just what would make them click together, but also what would make each individual click in herself. Off at their cars two women were pressing one another’s numbers into their cell phones, and in the Four Seasons Tavern a woman was probably drinking my drink. Overhead, the sky was the grey that it would be until it was blue, and then white with heat, and purple with rain, and everything else.

Our sign, I thought. She should have asked us our signs. I felt sure that that would have led somewhere. People really believe in signs.

—David Ebenbach

This story from David Ebenbach’s Juniper Prize for Fiction–winning collection The Guy We Didn’t Invite to the Orgy: and other stories (University of Massachusetts Press, 2017), also appeared in Storyscape (2013). 



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