The Honor of Your Presence
Helen heard a swish and a crackle from beyond her window, and knew her Uncle Peter had arrived. Always he showed up like this, like a restless child, racing to her house on a bicycle, dropping it carelessly into the juniper bush. He was sixty-two years old.
“Hellie?” he called.
“Back here,” she answered, and saw his bald head glide past her lemon tree.
He opened the screen door and flew in. He was wearing madras shorts, an oversized polo shirt, and canvas boat shoes. The loose skin around his knees jiggled as he swept his eyes around Helen’s office and finally collapsed on the futon. “Too hot out there to be biking,” he said.
Helen regarded him. Uncle Peter was pale, pink, built like a tennis player, and covered in brown freckles. His chest was just short of concave, his back the slightest bit bent. He walked with a loping gait that brought to mind a shaggy hippie with no particular place to be.
“I don’t know how you stand it out here in the middle of nowhere,” he said. “Especially with you being so young and vibrant.”
Helen did not usually consider herself so young and vibrant—she was thirty-one and had not exercised meaningfully in eighteen months—but she took the compliment, stored it away, knew she would visit it often.
She saw few people, and those she knew, professional acquaintances and distant cousins, were reserved and disinclined to make such pronouncements. She’d grown up in this town, Tres Pinos, between Killey Alley and Quien Sabes Road. It was scarcely a town, more of a stopover, but as soon as she could walk she’d found, among its few children, three friends, and they’d stayed together for the next few decades, a tight pentagon of unquestioning loyalty. But in the last few years, they’d both moved away, Maria married and dragged to Connecticut, and Leonor gone to nursing school days before the pandemic. Helen was alone, in a suddenly silent world. Then came Peter.
Dave Eggers is the author of many books, including The Eyes and the Impossible, The Every, The Circle, The Monk of Mokha, and the National Book Award finalist A Hologram for the King, as well as numerous books for young readers, including Her Right Foot, Faraway Things, and The Lifters. He is the founder of the independent publishing company McSweeney’s and the college-access nonprofit ScholarMatch, and the co-founder of 826 Valencia, a youth writing center that has inspired dozens of other centers worldwide. He is the winner of the Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Award for Education and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize.
Hannah Tinti on “The Honor of Your Presence”
When One Story’s Literary Debutante Ball returned in spring of 2022 after a two-year hiatus, we hired extra security to check vaccination cards, requested rapid Covid tests, and designated a “masks on” area, but we were still nervous about hosting a giant party. Would people feel safe enough to attend? Did any of us even remember how to socialize? It turned out to be a joyous evening, heightened with emotion, and more meaningful for what it represented—a return to community and connection.
Our new issue, “The Honor of Your Presence” by Dave Eggers, peers through this window of time when lockdown was lifted and the world began cautiously sending out invitations again. Refraining from the revelry is Helen, an introverted graphic designer settled in the hills of Central California, while Uncle Peter, a refugee from the shuttered London theater scene (now living in Helen’s garage), is eager to start venturing out. He convinces his niece to print an extra copy of an invitation she’s created for a lavish fundraiser, and before she realizes it, Helen is dressed as a whale shark, circling the dance floor of an aquatic costume party. She wants to go home—she’s comfortable at home—but through a series of increasingly dramatic events (and disguises) all orchestrated by her gate-crashing uncle, Helen begins to step outside the zone of self-protection she’s built and into a more messy, wild, and exuberant life.
Dave Eggers is a distinguished author, humanitarian, and supporter of the literary arts, and it’s a treat to welcome him to the pages of One Story, especially with a piece this fun. “The Honor of Your Presence” recognizes the struggle many have faced in the aftermath of isolation, and it makes an argument for opening doors instead of barricading them. It’s a celebration of excess and chaos—and an important reminder that sometimes, it’s best not to leave the party early.
Q&A by Hannah Tinti
- HT: Where did you get the idea for this story? What was the first image or scene that you wrote?
- DE: In my early and mid-twenties, I paid the bills working as a graphic designer, so I’ve had some experience doing invitations. These days, I have a friend who does a lot of high-end wedding invitations, and one day, her daughter, who was about fifteen, asked, “Why wouldn’t you just print an extra invitation and go yourself?” It was something that occurred to me way back when, but I hadn’t thought of it in ages.
- HT: “The Honor of Your Presence” captures the anxiety of gathering socially post-pandemic, but also takes readers to an aquatic masquerade, a garlic festival hoedown, and a 1915-era costume ball. What made you decide to write about big, lavish parties?
- DE: I was fascinated by the world coming back together after the pandemic. I think everyone had to contemplate—and is still contemplating—what gatherings of humans should look like now. What did we miss while we were in lockdown? What didn’t we miss? In general, I’ve always been interested in the expense and herculean effort that goes into transitory experiences that are often quickly forgotten. Helen, the protagonist, is definitely of the opinion that these lavish affairs are a waste of time and money—even though she’s the one creating the invitations to them.
- HT: Can you talk a bit about the character of Uncle Peter? How did he arrive in your imagination?
- DE: He really started as he does in the story—as a guy bursting into Helen’s studio, sniffing around like a puppy. That’s all I had at the start. Then I figured he needed to be from somewhere else, shining a light on Helen’s sad life. He’s bored in the hills of California’s Central Valley, having spent a few decades in London’s theater scene. So he’s the one who sees an opportunity to get into these galas without paying or being invited. The most outgoing and social people I know are all in their sixties and seventies, and it was they who were particularly ready to be done with Covid and get out there. He’s got that restless energy of someone with nothing to lose, and who knows that societal niceties are malleable, especially in a world on fire.
- HT: Helen is in many ways the opposite of Peter—an introvert who struggles to connect. And the costumes she wears feel key to her stepping outside her comfort zone. What role do masks (both medical and theatrical) play in this story? Do you think hiding her identity allows Helen to find who she truly is?
- DE: There’s definitely a comfort in going through the world in costume. And I don’t mean that metaphorically; I mean an actual disguise. It’s almost like being invisible—a way to watch the world without risk of being watched yourself. So Helen’s only able to join Peter, in sneaking into these events, because of the masks, costumes, and other means of disguise employed in the latter days of the pandemic. The anonymity gives her access.
- HT: What are you working on now?
- DE: I have an outbreak of ingrown nails—toenails, fingernails, they’re everywhere. So I’m trying to get those resolved, because they hurt like a mother. Did you mean writing-wise?
- HT: What’s the best bit of writing advice you’ve ever received?
- DE: One recent piece of advice comes to mind. I saw Danzy Senna speak to an audience at a literary festival a few years ago, and she was giving them the same advice she says she gives to her college students, which is: Don’t write about the stoner who stays at home watching TV and eating frozen pizza. Write about the drunk who goes out into the city with mischief on her mind. I’m butchering what Danzy said much better, but anyway. The point is a crucial one. Your characters have to be a bit reckless, unwise and adventurous. Otherwise nothing can or will happen.