|Leaving Small’s Hotel|
YOU CAN READ
The Wall of Happy Diners
WAS THE DAY of the funeral of the Big Tinker. The morning was gray,
as it ought to be for a funeral. Clouds lay heavy over Babbington
across the bay, lowering clouds, the dense livid ones that oppress, that
make it seem that the heavens are collapsing on us, slowly, pressing us
for an answer. Everything was still, dead. Lou and Elaine rode
across the bay with us. Elaine had to catch a train to the city,
but Lou had said that he wanted to come to the funeral. The bay was flat,
barely rippling. The one catboat that we still had riding at its
mooring was not even rocking, just lying there immobile and upright.
JUST INSIDE THE DOOR of the Babbington Diner there was a stack of giveaway papers and advertising brochures. We picked up a copy of House and Home, a booklet full of real estate ads. The hotel was advertised in it. It would be fair to say that it was featured, since it had been given half a page. There was a handsome photograph, from the front, that made it look like something worth owning. The copy began, “Do you have a dream? Do you dream of running your own luxury hotel?” Albertine read it aloud and burst out laughing. “Do you have nightmares?” she asked. “Do you wake up screaming? Do you worry about leaking plumbing, exploding boilers, and skyrocketing taxes?” I laughed with her, and I didn’t ask her what she meant by “skyrocketing taxes.”
THERE WERE SIX in my audience for the reading of the ninth episode from Dead Air, “The Wall of Happy Diners.” Elaine had returned, and she had brought with her a gray and cuddly couple, Alice and Clark, longtime friends of Lou’s.
WHITE and I were friends, despite the difference in our ages. Several
times a week I dropped in to see Porky and keep an eye on my investment
in his clam bar. Often, the clam bar was empty when I arrived, but
Porky was always there, scheming and dreaming, trying to find a way to
fill it with happy diners.
“Got a great idea!” he said when I walked in one afternoon. “A great idea!” He came out from behind the counter, grabbed me by the shoulder, and tugged me over to the west wall of the building, saying, “Come here, come here.”
We stood in front of the wall, and he asked, “You know what this is?”
“A wall,” I said.
“A wall, yes. A wall. A wall! And in any other clam bar it would be just a wall. But this isn’t any other clam bar. This is the house of hopes and dreams.”
“So this isn’t just a wall,” I said, extrapolating.
“No, no, no, no, no,” he said, shaking his head. “It’s the Wall of Happy Diners.”
“The Wall of Happy Diners,” I said.
“Here’s the idea. We’re going to keep a camera behind the counter, see?”
“Yeah . . .”
“And we’re going to take candid photographs of people eating. Then we’ll put them up here, on the Wall of Happy Diners.”
“That is a great idea,” I said. “I’ll take the pictures.”
“And we can use your camera,” said Porky.
I launched into the project with gusto. For a week or so, I spent every spare hour at the clam bar, lurking, stalking, spying, and—whenever I saw someone who looked like a happy diner—snapping pictures. I shot a couple of rolls.
When the pictures came back from Himmelfarb’s Photography Shop, Porky and I looked through them.
“We’ll put the really happy ones in a pile of their own,” he said. “Those are the ones I want on the wall.”
After the first pass, we had only one unambiguously happy diner. His girlfriend was tickling him. We started through again.
“Is this lady smiling?” Porky asked.
“She could be,” I said.
“Yeah, could be. Could be. It’s like when people say a baby is smiling and it’s really just gas. These aren’t happy diners. They’re just people with gas.”
“Don’t get discouraged,” I said. “Remember—this is the house of hopes and dreams.”
“Yeah, but some dreams are just illusions,” he said. He shoved the pictures away.
“Maybe we could hire somebody to—”
“No, no, no,” he said at once, reaching over to give me a pat on the shoulder. “We don’t need a professional. You’re doing a fine job. So, the pictures are a little out of focus—that’s okay. It makes them look more natural! It’s not the photographer, it’s—”
“I meant hire somebody to be in the pictures.”
“We could get some nice-looking people to pose. They could be sitting in a booth, eating fried clams. They could be happy diners.”
“You mean they could act like happy diners.”
“I’m surprised at you. Really surprised at you. In fact, I’m shocked. You’re talking about faking these pictures.”
“What would you call it?”
“And that’s not faking?”
“I guess you’re right,” I said. “I’ll keep taking the candid shots. Eventually we’ll fill that wall with happy diners. You’ll see.”
I asked just about everybody I knew to play the part of a happy diner. Some of them were willing to do it. My friends Raskol and Marvin and Matthew and Spike played a bunch of kids having fun at lunch. I had to buy the lunch, but it was worth it. Mrs. Jerrold, a neighbor of mine, brought her husband and another couple, and the four of them played grown-ups on the town, whooping it up. Porky played the part of someone who didn’t know what was going on.
Within a week, the Wall of Happy Diners began to fill with pictures of diners who appeared to be happy. There were Raskol, Marvin, Matthew, and Spike, clowning around, throwing fried clams at one another, and there were Mr. and Mrs. Jerrold leaning together, smiling, feeding each other clam chowder, apparently a happy, loving couple. The pictures made an attractive display. You couldn’t tell that they were fakes.
LINED SIX COCKTAIL GLASSES along the bar and filled them from a shaker.
“Okay,” he said, “now if you don’t like this drink I want you please to
at least give the appearance of enjoying it. My lovely assistant
Elaine will be taking some candid shots, and if you seem to be having a
good time we’re going to put your mug shot up on our Wall of Tipsy Topers.”
After the third round, we all looked quite merry, and I was not at all
surprised when Elaine scampered upstairs, returned with a camera, and began
snapping shots. I considered it a tribute.
I WAS READING, already under the quilt, when Albertine came running
out of the bathroom naked and shivering, threw herself under the covers
and snuggled against me.
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Leaving Small’s Hotel is published in paperback by Picador, a division of St. Martin's Press, at $14.00.
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Copyright © 1998 by Eric Kraft
Leaving Small’s Hotel 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.
Leaving Small’s Hotel was first published on May 11, 1998, by Picador USA, a division of St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10010.
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