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Martinis with the Merry Widow
COUPLE OF WEEKS LATER, about a month after Dudley’s death, his wife, Eliza,
telephoned me and said that she would like to see me. She had, she said,
a proposal that she would like me to consider.
A proposal? A proposition? I was on
my bicycle in a minute. Riding southward toward the five-way light
that marked a point in the boundary between the old, genteel Babbington,
and the new, vulgar Babbington where I lived, I speculated about the proposal
Eliza intended to make. I was, I remind you, a thirteen-year-old
boy (more precisely, nearly thirteen and two-thirds) just finishing the
ninth grade, so I fervently hoped that the proposal would have something
to do with sex. It seemed not impossible to me that Eliza might want
me to provide her with a sexual outlet now that Dudley was gone.
She would propose a sophisticated and civilized arrangement. I would
assure her that I would be more than happy to comply, that I would gladly
provide her with any sexual services that she cared to teach me to provide.
How old was Eliza then? Let me see: she was
considerably younger than Dudley and, of course, considerably older than
I. It would be a good guess to say that she was thirty-two or thirty-three,
just about my mother’s age.
She interviewed me in the living room. It
was, as I recall, early afternoon. She was wearing something cream
colored, silk, possibly thin enough for me to make out the outlines of
her underwear, but I can’t be certain about that, because I find that when
I bring the women of my past to mind, their clothing has become far finer
and sheerer in memory than it ever was in fact, and I can see lovely bits
of them now that I know I never saw then.
She was drinking a martini. I’m sure of that.
“Do you want anything?” she asked.
At thirteen? I wanted everything.
“Um, no,” I said, as I’d been taught to say when
offered anything I wanted. “No thanks.”
“Some lemonade or something?”
“Well—do you have Coffee-Toffee?”
“It’s soda, a kind of soda.”
“No, I don’t I have that. I’m sorry.”
“That’s okay,” I said. “I’ll have whatever
She raised her eyebrows, gave a little laugh, and
got up. She took a cocktail glass from a cabinet, and she filled
it from a shaker on a sideboard where there were several cut-glass decanters
and equipment for the making of drinks.
“This will be mostly water,” she said, “but you
can tell your friends that you spent the afternoon drinking martinis with
a merry widow.”
I tried it. It seemed strong to me.
“Mmm, delicious,” I said.
“Let me explain what I have in mind,” she said.
“Okay,” I said, trying not to seem too eager.
She sighed and lit a cigarette.
“I’m going abroad for a few weeks.”
“Abroad,” she repeated, shaking the match out, dropping
it into an ashtray, removing the cigarette from her mouth, exhaling.
“Overseas. To Europe.”
“Oh.” This was a surprise. Europe.
She wanted me to join her for an extended stay in Europe. Of course.
She understood that I had always been attracted to her, and she had developed
an attraction for me, but Babbington was no place to carry on a liaison
with a boy considerably less than half her age. On the other hand,
from what I’d heard Europe was just the place. This would be a great
opportunity for me. I would learn a lot from Europe and from Eliza.
I would be richer for the experience. I would have stories to tell
when I returned. I would stand out from all the Babbington boys who
had never traveled through Europe with Eliza. Patti would notice
my European patina, my worldly air, savvy and cynical demeanor, my je-ne-sais-quoi.
It would be wonderful.
“I’m going away so that I don’t have to endure all
“I understand,” I said. I didn’t. I
hadn’t noticed that she had had to endure much sympathy.
“Or maybe I’m just going away to be away for a while.
What do you think?”
“I don’t know.”
“Neither do I.” She knocked the ash from her
cigarette. She used her cigarette much as Dudley had used his pipe,
using the business of smoking to create a rhythm for the things she said.
After a moment had passed in the business of smoking, she said, “Peter,
I want to offer you a job.”
“What is it?” I asked. Translator seemed a
possibility, since I had started taking French. I didn’t have much
of a vocabulary yet; I’d have to get to work.
“I’d like you to take care of this house for a while,”
she said. I felt a great disappointment, as you might expect.
Arrivederci, Roma. So long to Germany. Farewell to France.
“Are you interested?”
“I’m not sure,” I said, honestly. It wasn’t
nearly as attractive an offer as traveling through Europe, kissing and
cuddling our way across the Continent in first-class railway compartments.
“Well, let’s discuss the duties and responsibilities
and the remuneration, and then we’ll see whether you’re interested.”
I liked “remuneration.” It sounded much classier
than “pay,” and it sounded like more money.
“Uh-huh,” I said, and at that point I think that
I had already decided to take the job. I think I had decided that
I would take any job that involved remuneration, whatever the responsibilities
“Peter,’ she said, “what’s happened to you?”
“Happened to me?”
“You don’t seem to have anything to say. You’ve
become awkward and hesitant, as if you were dull-witted, but I know you’re
not a dull boy. You—ahhhh—I see.”
“You’ve reached the awkward age, haven’t you?”
“I guess so,” I said. It was true. I
often seemed to get in my own way, and I mean that both literally, since
I sometimes tripped over my own feet as if some prankster had tied my shoes
together, and figuratively, since my thoughts sometimes tripped over one
another and tied my tongue.
“Well,” she said with a knowing smile, “it doesn’t
last forever.” She got up, keeping her glass, and said, “Come on—let’s
walk through the house and I’ll show you what I want you to do.”
“I’ll try not to break anything,” I said.
“Good,” she said, and she tousled my hair.
My duties as she outlined them wouldn’t be many.
I would have to check the house daily, water some plants, dust and vacuum
regularly, run the water and flush the toilet so that rust wouldn’t accumulate
in the pipes, fix or have fixed anything that broke, keep the windows open
a bit so that the place wouldn’t get musty, but close them if rain was
predicted, then open them again when the skies cleared, and keep the lawn
mowed and the weeds down. She would remunerate me handsomely; since
yesterday’s pay scales seem quaint today, and today’s are likely to seem
quaint tomorrow, I’ll put my remuneration in terms of purchasing power:
the amount that she was willing to pay me each week would be equivalent
to the price of dinner for two with drinks, tax, and tip at a modest restaurant
in Manhattan. Not bad for a kid of thirteen. With that much
money coming in each week, I could take Patti out on dates, if I could
persuade her to go on dates with me.
“The key to the back door is under the mat,” she
said. She paused and looked me over. Then she decided to add
“You can snoop around. I know that you’re
going to snoop around, so I’ll tell you that you can snoop around, but
don’t break anything, and please put everything back just as you found
“And don’t do anything that will ruin my reputation,
“Like what?” I asked.
“You know—no parties, no seducing teenage girls,
no plying them with drink, no playing the bachelor playboy just because
you have the run of the house.”
“Or if you do, no getting caught at it.”
She winked at me, and I winked back.
“Okay,” I said. Parties; there was an idea.
Seducing teenage girls; there was an even better idea. Bachelor playboy.
Not getting caught. These were all good ideas.
“And if people should ask—not that I think they
will, but if they should—tell them that I had to get away for a while because
I couldn’t endure all the sympathy.”
“Okay.” The most attractive idea of all was
the thought that with the run of the house and license to snoop I could
look for evidence of Dudley’s role in my conception.
I should like to see the custom introduced of readers who are pleased
with a book sending the author some small cash token: anything between
half-a-crown and a hundred pounds. Authors would then receive what
their publishers give them as a flat rate and their “tips” from grateful
readers in addition, in the same way that waiters receive a wage from their
employers and also get what the customer leaves on the plate. Not
more than a few hundred pounds—that would be bad for my character—not less
than half-a-crown—that would do no good to yours.
Cyril Connolly, Enemies of Promise
Copyright © 2001 by Eric
Inflating a Dog is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents,
dialogues, settings, and businesses portrayed in it are products
of the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any
resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted
in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying,
recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without
permission in writing from the author.
Picador USA will publish Inflating a Dog in the summer of 2002.
For information about publication rights outside the U. S. A., audio
rights, serial rights, screen rights, and so on, e-mail
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