My Mother Takes a Tumble
Chapter 14: She Is Not
YOU CAN READ THE FIRST HALF
just don’t understand this Simpson,” complained Mr. Beaker, shaking his
head, looking to either side of him to see who was listening. He
swallowed the last of his Scotch. My father immediately signaled
Whitey to bring him another, which Mr. Beaker began drinking without noticing
that it was a new drink.
“You tell me about it,” said May.
Mr. Beaker began fiddling with his pipe, poking and pounding at the tobacco with a complicated brass tool that my father suspected was a prop, something that Beaker used only when he had an audience. At home, my father knew, from standing on his toes and looking into Mr. Beaker’s kitchen, he smoked mentholated cigarettes and lit them with ordinary paper matches.
My father passed his hand over his mouth, but his eyes were bright above it, and I could tell he was grinning.
“At first,” said Mr. Beaker, leaning toward May and holding up his index finger, “I thought I knew what he was after. I figured that he wanted a little flattery, a little titillation.”
Whitey raised both eyebrows, as my father had done earlier. I tried it myself.
“This is a family bar,” he said. “You have to watch what you say here.”
“I assure you,” said Mr. Beaker, “that I do not intend to say anything that will upset the hardworking folk who gather here to drink away the memory of each working day.”
“I wouldn’t exactly say that,” said Whitey. “I mean, most of the people you see here tonight only come in on the weekends. I grant you we get a different crowd during the week, but I don’t know that I’d call them hardworking.”
“I wonder whether Simpson goes to bars,” Mr. Beaker wondered aloud.
“What’s the name?” asked Whitey.
Mr. Beaker took from his pocket a brass lighter, a miniature reproduction of the sort of torch used in those days to solder copper pipe. At the back, above the little handle, was a lever that could be pumped to raise the pressure in the fuel container. From the top, a nozzle projected horizontally, terminating in a perforated sleeve, and just in front of this sleeve was a striking wheel that, when spun, produced a spark from a flint held just below the wheel in a cylindrical flint-holder. When a valve was opened, fuel was forced through the tiny nozzle under pressure, and the atomized fuel rushed through the sleeve, where it mixed with air drawn into the sleeve through the perforations. This air-and-fuel mixture was ignited by the spark and produced, with a miniature roar, a flame as long as Mr. Beaker’s index finger, a flame that Mr. Beaker could count on to capture the attention of everyone nearby. He pumped the lighter several times, opened the valve, and spun the striker, producing the desired results.
“Jack Simpson,” he announced.
“That’s the guy he’s having all this trouble writing a letter to,” said my father.
“He doesn’t come in here,” said Whitey.
“What’s the name?” asked May.
“Simpson,” said Whitey. “Jack Simpson.”
“What does he look like?” May pushed her glass toward Whitey and twisted on her stool so that she faced Mr. Beaker and her knee just touched his leg. Mr. Beaker looked at her for a long time before answering.
“What does he look like? I don’t know. I’ve never seen him.”
“Oh, I thought you knew him.”
“I thought I knew him, too.” Mr. Beaker shook his head slowly from side to side. He rubbed his forehead with his fingers, as if he were massaging away a pain. “I even thought I knew what he looked like. I would have said, a while ago, that he was short, balding, and a little overweight, that he had in his closet a hat with a feather, a hat he had bought after a long period of hesitation, a hat that he had imagined wearing at a jaunty angle when he went to work in the morning, a hat that he had never had the nerve to wear.”
“Oh, I know that guy,” said May. She held a cigarette to her lips and leaned toward Mr. Beaker for a light. She lost her balance on the stool and had to steady herself with a hand on his shoulder. “I think my husband, who died, used to know him.”
Mr. Beaker sighed through his nose and lit May’s cigarette with a match from a book on the bar. “I’m not describing him as he is, only as I imagined him to be,” he explained. My father signaled to Whitey again.
“Wait a minute,” said Whitey. “Let me get this straight. Are we talking about somebody you just made up?”
“If I had made him up,” said Mr. Beaker, “I would not have made him so—” he paused, unable to find not only the right word, but any word that would fit reasonably well. He looked at May, waiting for him to finish the thought, and at Whitey and my father, also waiting. Then he looked at his drink.
“Hard to describe?” suggested May.
“Bald?” asked my father.
“Fat,” said Whitey.
“Mysterious?” asked my mother.
“—hard to control,” said Mr. Beaker.
My father saw the opportunity that he had been waiting for. His hand shook when he raised his glass, and he spilled a little beer on the bar, but he succeeded fairly well in making himself sound as if a small and inconsequential idea had just occurred to him. “It seems to me,” he said, “that your real problem isn’t Jack Simpson. It’s this woman he has his eye on, this what’s-her-name.”
“Yeah. See, with this Simpson you’ve got a problem you don’t have with those others—”
“He writes to other men, too?” May asked my mother.
“—you’ve got competition. Now, you should be thinking about how you’re going to match the competition.”
“You’re competing with some woman for the attentions of this guy who wears a hat with a feather?” asked May. She drew away from Mr. Beaker.
“It’s business, May,” said my mother, reaching between May and Mr. Beaker again to move the pretzel dish away from me and slide her glass toward Whitey.
“It sounds like funny business to me,” said May. She reached around my mother and gave Mr. Beaker a little push on the shoulder. “Is that what you’re up to, funny business?”
“If I were you, Beaker,” my father continued, “I’d get a look at this Eliza and see what I was up against. Then I’d know what to do. Maybe she isn’t really any competition at all—”
“Sure,” said my mother, “that could be. Remember how jealous you used to be of—”
“I wasn’t ever jealous,” said my father, snapping his head toward my mother.
“Bert,” said Mr. Beaker, “you’ve got it.”
My father’s jaw dropped, but he recovered quickly. “Sure,” he said, “this Eliza may be some dumpy, dull-witted—”
“No, no, no,” said Mr. Beaker. “You’ve got it but you don’t know it. Eliza is quite wonderful. She’s modest, selfless, and quite nice looking, but she’s no competition at all—” Mr. Beaker leaned toward Whitey and finished in a stage whisper that fell across the bar like a heavy drizzle. “—because she isn’t. She is not. There is no Eliza Foote at all. I’ve let myself get all upset over nothing, something my mother always cautioned me against.” He smiled and pushed his glass toward Whitey with more vigor than he had intended. It slid across the bar and over the edge. Whitey snatched the glass out of the air and began refilling it.
Mr. Beaker began chuckling. “That Simpson,” he said. “The wily devil. He doesn’t want flattery and titillation; he wants competition, an epistolary battle of wits. Oh, he’s a clever bastard. He introduced an unknown quantity, this Eliza, in order to wrest control of our correspondence from me. Next he’ll probably start asking for money. Now what do I know about this feigned Eliza? She waits at a certain bus stop each morning, wearing a blue cloth coat.” He leaned across the bar and asked Whitey, “Where is Louise’s Coffee Shop?”
“Louise’s Coffee Shop? That’s over on Bolotomy and Main, isn’t it?” suggested Whitey.
“No, no,” said May. “That’s Lucille’s Pastry Shop. They do have coffee, though I wouldn’t eat the doughnuts there, if I were you. Too heavy, greasy. Try Lucy’s Donuts. They make good doughnuts, but you have to get there early, when they’re fresh.”
“There’s Louise’s Sandwich Shop, where’s that?” asked my mother.
“That’s closed,” said my father. “Long ago. We used to go there when we were in high school, remember? Wait a minute, am I thinking of the right place? It wasn’t Louise’s Sandwich Shop, it was Louise’s Lunch, wasn’t it?”
Whitey leafed through a telephone book. “Louise’s,” he said. “There’s one in Hargrove.”
“Hargrove. Yes, that’s right,” said Mr. Beaker. “I’m off to Hargrove to see for myself that there is no Eliza Foote.” He reached for his drink, then rejected it with a scowl and a wave. “Good night to all,” he said. “Whitey, you run a very nice place here. Where is the door?”
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Little Follies 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.
“My Mother Takes a Tumble,” “Do Clams Bite?,” “Life on the Bolotomy,” “The Static of the Spheres,” “The Fox and the Clam,” “The Girl with the White Fur Muff,” “Take the Long Way Home,” and “Call Me Larry” were originally published in paperback by Apple-Wood Books.
Little Follies was first published in hardcover by Crown Publishers, Inc., 201 East 50th Street, New York, New York 10022. Member of the Crown Publishing Group.
For information about publication rights outside the U. S. A., audio rights, serial rights, screen rights, and so on, e-mail the author’s imaginary agent, Alec “Nick” Rafter.
The illustration at the top of the page is an adaptation of an illustration by Stewart Rouse that first appeared on the cover of the August 1931 issue of Modern Mechanics and Inventions. The boy at the controls of the aerocycle doesn’t particularly resemble Peter Leroy—except, perhaps, for the smile.