The Party Upstairs: A Novel

The Party Upstairs: A Novel

by Lee Conell
The Party Upstairs: A Novel

The Party Upstairs: A Novel

by Lee Conell


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An electrifying debut novel that unfolds in the course of a single day inside one genteel New York City apartment building, as tensions between the building's super and his grown-up daughter spark a crisis that will, by day's end, change everything.

Ruby has a strange relationship to privilege. She grew up the super's daughter in the basement of an Upper West Side co-op that gets more gentrified with each passing year. Though not economically privileged herself, her close childhood friendship with Caroline, the daughter of affluent tenants, and the mere fact of living in such a wealthy neighborhood, close to her beloved Natural History Museum, brought her certain advantages, even expectations. Naturally Ruby followed her dreams and took out loans to attend a prestigious small liberal arts college and explore her interest in art. But now, out of school for a while, she is no closer to her dream job, or anything resembling it, and she's been forced by circumstances to do the last thing she wanted to do: move back in with her parents, back into the basement. And Caroline is throwing one of her parties tonight, in her father's glorious penthouse apartment, a party Ruby looks forward to and dreads in equal measure.

With a thriller's narrative control, The Party Upstairs distills worlds of wisdom about families, great expectations, and the hidden violence of class into the gripping, darkly witty story of a single fateful day inside the Manhattan co-op Ruby calls home. Told from the alternating points of view of Ruby and her father, the novel builds from the spark of an early morning argument between them to the ultimate conflagration to which it leads by day's end. By the time the ashes have cooled, the façade that masks the building's power structure will have burned away, and no party will be left unscathed.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781984880277
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/07/2020
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Lee Conell is the author of the story collection Subcortical, which was awarded The Story Prize's Spotlight Award. Her short fiction has received the Chicago Tribune's Nelson Algren Award and appears in the Oxford American, Kenyon Review, Glimmer Train, American Short Fiction, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of creative writing fellowships from the Japan-United States Friendship Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts, the Tennessee Arts Commission, and the Sewanee Writers' Conference.

Read an Excerpt

1   The Intruder

It was still dark out when Martin and his daughter, Ruby, sat down on opposite sides of the living room floor, closed their eyes, and tried to forget each other. Ruby, twenty-four, had moved back home only a week ago, and this was the first time she had agreed to meditate with her father. But instead of being present with his inhalations and exhalations, Martin found himself leaping into the future, stupidly hopeful that after they'd finished meditating, Ruby would hug him and say she could already feel her sense of wonder swelling and her anxiety ebbing and her inner light growing more numinous, and oh, even though her dad was just a building super he was smarter than any of her college professors, he was the smartest guy she knew, and she was so grateful to him. An embarrassingly needy fantasy. Martin's job often involved trafficking in the small embarrassments of others-in the last week alone, the corporate lawyer in 4D had called screaming with fear about a water bug in the hallway, the financial analyst in 9A had called about her tampon-clogged toilet, the hedge-fund-portfolio manager in 6C had admitted he'd drunkenly tossed his keys on the subway track-but he still never felt fully prepared for how humiliating his own thoughts could be, especially when they revealed his desire for the approval of his daughter.

Anyway, why seek her approval at all? Ruby was a mess-deep in debt, newly jobless, nervous about her interview today, and angry at finding herself back living with her parents in the basement apartment after years of steps toward some higher elevation. Martin should expect no hug from her, no declaration of gratitude. Of course, it would be nice if the meditation helped her a little. Maybe she would look up afterward and smile at him.

Only a few minutes in, Ruby coughed. Martin opened his eyes.

"So," Ruby said, "I'm not feeling happier yet."

"Meditation's actually not about feeling happier." He used the same gentle voice he had used on the couple in 7B when he told them they would have to pull up the blue Brazilian marble tile in their bathroom because of a leak. "Meditation's about looking inward. It's about increasing self-awareness."

"Oh, Dad," Ruby said, "if you were self-aware, you'd recognize this whole enlightened-guru thing is just your secular Judaism deteriorating into some half-baked New Age muck."

"That New Age muck helps lower my blood pressure." The gentle blue-tile-pulling voice was gone. "I need nice low blood pressure, Ruby, so I don't lose it when yuppie tenants scream at me about rats nibbling away at their cheese straws."

"God, the rats." She stood up from the floor. "Can we not talk about the rats again."

"Lower your voice. Your mom's still asleep."

"Mom's always saying she never had the patience for meditation and you don't push it on her."

"She's not the one anxious and awake before the sun's even up."

Ruby plopped onto the couch. "Maybe I can try being mindful from over here? The floor is cold."

Of course the floor was cold. It was early March, the chill outside somehow made rawer by the nearness of spring, the hope for better weather. Still, Martin was pretty sure you were supposed to meditate on or close to the floor, no matter how cold it was. You could sit on a meditation bench, like Martin did, or a pillow, but you had to remain low to the ground. You definitely weren't supposed to go around seeking inner peace on couches, and especially not on that couch, which was an ugly couch, upholstered in a butterscotch-orange velour fabric with a print of an old mill and a couple of paunchy cows. Debra had forced him to drag it in from the courtyard's alleyway years ago ("It's not hideous, Martin, it's retro!"). The sad cow eyes repeated on the fabric behind his daughter somehow made him even more irritated with Ruby. "You know what happens if I do lose my cool in front of the tenants?" he asked her. "I lose this job."

"You've been the super here forever." She looked down at him. "They wouldn't fire you now. You're basically an Upper West Side institution."

An Upper West Side institution. Like the Museum of Natural History, where Ruby's job interview was today. Maybe she would mention Martin to the museum people. Maybe she would joke, "You should put my dad in a diorama." He felt the meditation bench digging into his thighs and said, "Actually, Ruby, the management company would fire me in a heartbeat if I shouted at a tenant. They want a younger guy. If I lose my cool, I lose this job. And if I lose this job, we lose our insurance and we lose this apartment." And if they lost this apartment, Martin and Debra would be homeless, at least for a little while. So much of their savings had gone to Ruby's college education. Leading to what? Now she sat there on the couch, wearing baggy jeans and a large T-shirt for a charity race Martin was sure she hadn't run, its front polka-dotted with the slogans of corporate sponsors. The shirt must have belonged to John, her ex-boyfriend, who had recently kicked her out of the apartment they'd shared in Brooklyn. Why was his unemployed daughter here in the basement wearing an oversize T-shirt covered with the names of massive banks?

"Wow, Dad. What a glare." Ruby sat straighter on the couch. "I'm not sure the meditation's working for you."

"Maybe don't be so snotty about my meditation practice while your mom and I let you stay here."

"Please." Ruby lifted her hands, as though the pink stretch of her palms should be enough to earn his compassion. "I feel pathetic already. Don't guilt me."

But his guilting must have possessed some power, because she hopped off the couch and sat down on the floor again, joining him once more in the muck of his spiritual practice. She bent her head and would not look at him. He closed his eyes, focused on his inhalation. At least Ruby was showing more signs of shame than she had last week. "I'm not your human daughter anymore," she had said to Martin and Debra as she moved back in, dragging old grocery bags full of clothes through the door. "It turns out you birthed a living, breathing think piece. The failure to launch millennial blah-dee-blah." She had looked expectantly at her parents, but neither one of them had laughed. Her words had sounded rehearsed to Martin. Bravado paired with self-deprecation-was this all her education had taught her?

Ruby had graduated from college just after the 2008 recession hit and she was still mired in debt. Martin and Debra had contributed what they could spare. Stupidly, the specter of debt had been the least of Martin's worries when Ruby first moved away to attend her very expensive university on a partial scholarship. At the time, he had most feared that she would start to behave like the tenants in the building. When she called home to say that her dorm looked like a castle or to gush about some art history course ("Truly, Professor Sharondale's reconceptualized my understanding of dioramas as a creative force . . ."), part of him could only hear the call she might make after she hung up, a call to a maintenance man like him-some guy without a college degree-complaining about the appearance of mold in the dorm bathroom or about a dead light bulb.

"Cut the self-pity crap and just be proud of your daughter," sweet old Lily in 5A, his "building mom," used to tell him, with such sincerity that tiny veinlets surfaced on her wrinkled forehead. "It's not Ruby's fault the fever dream of free-market capitalism has corrupted the realm of higher education." Lily had always tried to cheer Martin up by blaming his parental angst on the free market. Several months ago Martin had gone to 5A when 4A complained about a leak, and found Lily slumped over on the toilet. She was dead from a hemorrhagic stroke. There was a leak in Lily's brain, it turned out, a blood vessel that had burst. She'd left the faucet on and when Martin saw her there, the running water had seemed to roar. Later that same day Kenneth in the penthouse had left five messages on Martin's answering machine about a giant bird ("An eagle or owl or whatever," Kenneth said, though Martin suspected a red-tailed hawk) dropping a decapitated and mangled pigeon carcass on his deck once again and could Martin clean the mess up?

It had felt almost sacrilegious to Martin, hearing Kenneth's voice so soon after seeing Lily's body. Lily had hated Kenneth. Before he moved into the penthouse, Kenneth had lived in 6A, the apartment above Lily's, with his wife and daughter. "I feel the creepiest laissez-faire vibes oozing through my ceiling," Lily had told Martin once back then, in the early nineties. "When Kenneth passes me in the lobby, he looks right through me. I'm an old woman, I'm rent-controlled, I'm invisible to him."

"Maybe he and his family will move out," Martin said. "Kenneth's always complaining that 6A's too small."

"He's waiting for me to die is what he's doing. He wants to buy my apartment and create a two-story duplex with 5A and 6A. I'm sure of it. He's got the Manifest Destiny glaze in his eyes. How can you let Ruby have playdates with his bratty daughter?"

"Ruby likes Caroline."

"Ruby likes Caroline's dolls."

Kenneth must have gotten tired of waiting for Lily to die. Once some of his portfolio investments had paid off, he received permission from the co-op board to build a penthouse on the roof. After he and his family had moved into the penthouse in the late nineties, Kenneth didn't sell their former apartment but rented it out to some sort of finance person. Time passed. Kenneth got stouter, Kenneth got divorced, Kenneth lost his hair. But he did not lose the Manifest Destiny glaze in his eyes. After Lily died, he did exactly what she had so often predicted. He politely kicked his renter out of 6A and then he bought 5A. Now he was in the process of constructing a two-story duplex, which he planned to keep for a while as an investment property. "My nest egg," he'd told Martin with a wink the other day in the elevator, and Martin had thought about the pair of pigeons nesting outside on the courtyard's ledge. Every morning, Martin fed those birds, hoping that one day he'd see their babies hatch. They were the closest thing he had to an investment property.

The opposite of mindful contemplation, probably, was contemplating another man's real estate. Martin's back had gone stiff, his knees creaked, and yet the older he got, the more nimbly his brain made wild leaps through time and space. He was supposed to be here, present, meditating next to his daughter, not thinking about Lily's death or Kenneth's apartments or the pigeons in the courtyard. He breathed in. He breathed out.

But then the heat pipe in the living room thumped and he remembered how the woman in 4B had recently complained about the thumping sound coming from 5B, which was caused by the private tango lessons the woman in 5B was taking with the woman in 2C, who had recently divorced the man who had once lived in 7D and who had lost his job in advertising just around the time Ruby graduated and was now in the process of selling his apartment to an heiress whose financial consultant lived in 6C and had complained recently about a leak caused by the attendant to the sick lady in 7C who poured grease down the kitchen sink, didn't know any better, and who rode the subway from the Bronx every morning with the nanny in 3A whose young charges tried to poison with cayenne-infused chocolate the pair of yipping Yorkies in 3D, an act of pure malice that didn't much bother anybody but especially not the attorney in 7A who had seen the dogs pissing directly onto the red-and-white impatiens she had asked to be planted in the tree pit outside the building, which were popular flowers with some in the building, yes, but others, like the real estate guy from Lyon in 6B and the financial consultant from Moscow in 8C, felt impatiens were tacky and populist and had tried to advocate for something more elegant, begonias, perhaps, and also wanted the green awning to be replaced with a burgundy one, but 9D had argued against both begonias and the burgundy color, mostly because he believed 8C was responsible for bringing in the new team of Russian elevator mechanics, who had, in the past, worked on missiles in what 7C was pretty sure these mechanics still called the motherland, and who 7C was also pretty sure were spies of some sort, a suspicion she had confided exclusively (she thought) to 3A, but 3A blabbered about it to the board members and her blabbering had backfired, so that now 7C was considered a paranoid woman, a possible isolationist bigot, and a loose cannon, which was probably true, since after the attacks on September 11, 7C had spent weeks in Westchester calling Martin about an oncoming toxic cloud headed for Manhattan and asking if he could double-check that the windows were all the way closed in the apartment, which was actually the same request made by 7B, who recently had maybe got bedbugs (they blamed the house cleaner) leading 4B (once the news got out) to panic and do laundry for six hours straight, which really pissed off 1D, because they had kids and the kids had soccer practice and 4B, whose child merely finger painted and did no competitive sports at all, was using all the machines, which 4B said was a necessary thing because didn't 1D hear about the bedbugs in 7B and 1D said the bedbugs were just a rumor, the bedbug dog from Queens had come in and sensed nothing, but still the paranoia reached such a pitch that many of 7B's belongings eventually wound up in the basement and Martin and Rafael, the porter, had had to drag armoires and mattresses and books and clothes out into the courtyard, and into the alley, and up the stairs for the garbage people to take away to waste transfer centers, to barges, to landfills, to landfills, to landfills.

Martin's heart, that dumb, flawed blood hauler, made sounds like a garbage truck in his chest.

He had fucked up mindfulness again.

Martin must concentrate on his breath, must forget the many stories of complaint within this nine-story building. He must cool the hallways of his heart. No, not hallways. That was an apartment building sort of term. With the heart, you called them chambers. He knew all about the heart now. He'd googled "heart biological parts" after Lily's death had increased the constricted feeling around his chest. His own dad had died young of a heart attack. Over the last year or two, even before Lily's death, he'd begun to watch what he ate, gotten deeper into meditation, started bird-watching, all in the interest of lowering his resting heart rate. Of course, thinking too much about his resting heart rate seemed to heighten it again. He heard it now, his heartbeat quickening. He wanted to open his eyes, to stand up, to abandon his meditation bench.

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