Chapter 1: The Alley View Grill
Part 2: A Sense of Humor Is the Best Defense
YOU CAN READ
n the lobby, one of Matthew’s neighbors, a man of thirty-five or so, someone
he knows only as Robert, is screaming at the girl behind the desk.
(This girl is not a full-time professional concierge. She’s a student.
In fact, she’s the prettiest of the girls who live down the hall from Matthew.)
Robert’s dressed almost entirely in black, including a black fur coat and
black-and-white patent-leather saddle shoes. His date is standing
behind him, with his arms folded, trying to appear uninterested, but his
eyes betray him—they’re afire with the thrill of watching Robert make a
scene. He too is dressed in black. He has a rhinestone pin
on the lapel of his coat.
“This is absolutely inexcusable!” Robert is shouting. “Fifteen minutes! Fifteen minutes we waited for the goddamned elevator. In-ex-cus-a-ble! Inexcusable.”
Matthew tries not to chuckle. It sounds like a spelling bee. He can’t keep himself from spelling, mentally, i-n-e-x-c-u-s-a-b-l-e.
“I don’t ever want this to happen again, do you hear me!” Robert stamps his foot.
The girl is on the verge of tears. Matthew loves the way her hair falls over her shoulders, fine and straight, light brown, with a little red in it. For the first time he notices that she has freckles.
Freckles, he says to himself. My God. And he asks himself, How old is this girl? Twenty-two? Eighteen? Twelve? He has no idea. He can’t tell. It occurs to him, just then, that he’s well on his way to becoming an old fart, or a middle-aged fart, anyway.
The girl has a textbook of some kind open on the desk in front of her. She pushes some hair back behind her ear in that lovely, heartbreaking way girls do and runs her finger under her eye, wiping an incipient tear. For an instant Matthew considers snatching the vase of flowers from the lobby table and smashing it over Robert’s head. Then he remembers himself as not the sort of person who would do something like that.
“You understand that I have nothing to do with this,” the girl says. She’s trying to be calm, but her lip trembles a little, and there’s a catch in her voice.
“All I know is this,” says Robert. He heard that little catch in her voice, and he’s pressing his advantage. He jabs his finger at her. “I never want this to happen again. Do you understand me?”
She frowns and nods, barely.
“Do you understand me?”
“Yes, I understand you, but—”
“Good! That’s all I have to say about it.” He turns on his heel, and his friend opens the door for him. They walk out and start off down the street, talking animatedly, flinging their arms.
The girl puts her elbows on the desk and lets her chin drop into her hands.
“He has no right to talk to you like that,” Matthew says. He wonders if this is a good time to ask her if she’d like to drop in for dinner sometime.
She looks up and smiles at him, weakly. “I called the elevator company,” she says. She blinks, and she brushes her hands across her eyes.
Matthew thinks again about staying home, just hanging out in the lobby, perhaps, chatting with her, helping her study, sending out for whatever girls her age eat. He pulls his stomach in and stands up a little straighter, is immediately struck by the fact that he thinks it’s necessary to pull his stomach in and stand up a little straighter, and loses his nerve. He gives her a crooked little grin that he hopes she’ll consider conspiratorial. “What more can you do?” he says.
She shrugs. For a moment he thinks she’s going to ask him something. Maybe she’s going to ask him why he didn’t speak up in her defense, or maybe she’s about to say, “I noticed you were considering hitting Robert with that vase. Why didn’t you?” Whatever she thought of asking she thinks better of it, he guesses, because she just shrugs. She probably knows that he knows that she has three roommates, two more than the building allows, and she doesn’t want any trouble from him. It has occurred to her that he must be about her father’s age, and he probably has the same touchiness about rules as her father. She smiles at him, the very smile she smiles at her father when she wants his support but doesn’t really want to talk to him.
The elevator alarm bell begins ringing again. “Hello?” calls the tentative voice. Matthew shakes his head and leaves, wondering what she’ll do after he’s gone. Will she call a friend and chat? Will she call the elevator company again? Will she stick her earphones in her ears so she won’t hear the little voice calling from the elevator? Will she slip into the mailroom and efface the unhappy incident with cocaine? Maybe she’ll say to herself, “He’s kinda cute, that Mr. Barber. I’ll bet he’s pretty interesting when you get to know him.”
OUTSIDE, Matthew sees Robert and his friend walking ahead of him, still
talking and waving their arms. A short, heavy woman in a green coat
is walking toward them. She looks like a gumdrop. As she approaches
them, Matthew sees that she’s saying something, almost shouting.
They stop and put their hands on their hips; for a moment, they are a pantomime
of homosexual umbrage. The gumdrop woman is really shouting
now. They shout back, and the exchange escalates in volume until
finally Matthew can make out what the woman’s saying; in the singsong voice
children use to taunt one another, she’s saying, “Animals suffered agony
to make your coat.”
HE GETS A CAB at the corner, gives the driver Belinda’s address, and
then sits in silence. Whenever he’s alone in a cab, it seems to him
that he should talk to the cabdriver, but he never does unless the driver
speaks to him first. Cabdrivers, he knows, are supposed to have a
wealth of information, a repertoire of amazing stories, but they rarely
speak to him, and he never knows what to say to them. This behavior
isn’t really a reluctance to talk to cabdrivers as such—he has the same
problem with anyone he doesn’t know well—but he’s not usually riding alone
in a car with other people he doesn’t know well, so it’s most apparent
BELINDA is not her real name. Her real name is Linda. Almost a year ago, not long after she and Matthew began having dinner together a couple of nights a week, she decided that Linda, as a name, had had its day. She said to him, “Try calling me Belinda for a while.” He tried it that evening, and an amazing transformation occurred. He had known Linda for years. She was married to a friend of his, and Liz was a friend of hers. He and Linda were friends by extension. When they began going out to dinner together, he still thought of her as his old friend Linda. When he began calling her Belinda, he found that this woman Belinda seemed a lot sexier than his old friend Linda, and at the end of the evening they went nuts, making love on the sofa and rug in Matthew’s living room until they were exhausted. After all those years, they were suddenly lovers—well, not lovers, to tell the truth—something more like sex fiends. It didn’t last. Perhaps friendship is stronger than sex. They are back to being friends, friends who have sex once or twice a week, after dinner or the movies or the theater—still on the couch or the rug, but with something missing. Matthew keeps hoping that she’ll decide to change her name again.
SNOW HAS BEGUN TO FALL, a pretty sight in the warm yellow light that
spills from Belinda’s windows. It’s a charming place, two floors
of a town house on Marlborough Street, a very desirable location, very
pretty in the snow, and it should seem inviting, yet Matthew hesitates
before ringing the bell. Why? He finds Belinda’s daughter unsettling.
Her name is Leila. She and Belinda say “Lay-la.” He would say
“Lie-la,” but he supposes people should be able to decide how they want
their own names pronounced.
“So, now that you changed your name, what’s next? Are you going to marry Matthew? ‘Belinda Barber,’ won’t that be great.”He supposes that Leila would ask that, exactly that way. He thinks he can see it in her smile, that sarcastic, wise-child, know-it-all smile.
Leila answers the door; she usually does. Her hair is wet. She’s wearing something that looks like an athletic undershirt her father might have left behind. “Hey,” she says. “How ya doin’?”
“Fine,” says Matthew. Leila’s breasts fill all the space between them. Matthew gives her the half grin he has developed to avoid showing his yellowing teeth. “How about you?”
“Okay. Come on in. Where’re you guys going tonight?”
“I thought we’d go to a new grill not far from my place. It seems interesting.”
“Then back to your place to fuck, right?” She doesn’t say that, of course. “Sounds nice,” is what she actually says, and smiles—sweetly and, Matthew thinks, possibly sarcastically. “Do you want me to make you a drink?” It’s a trick that her father—once a friend of Matthew’s, now gone—taught her. She can mix just about anything, and pretty well, too, though she tends to use too much vermouth.
“Sure, that would be fine.”
From upstairs Belinda calls, “We don’t have time. I’m ready.”
“Another time,” says Leila. Is there an odd little lilt in her voice, not quite appropriate? Is she flirting with Matthew? Is she mocking him? Belinda comes into the room, dressed like an accountant. Belinda is head of new-product development for Zizyph, a computer software company that had six employees a year ago, has a hundred now, and at this time next year may have six hundred or may be only a fuzzy memory. Belinda is smart and attractive, but she dresses like an accountant. Though they have such similar jobs, she and Matthew never talk about work. Matthew thinks that this is because they are both embarrassed by his working on toys. (Years ago, at a party, Matthew was telling someone what he did, and Liz—they were still married—came up beside him and rumpled his hair. She smiled at the woman he was talking to and said, “Matthew never grew up.” She meant it to be a compliment, that Matthew had kept his childlike innocence and charm, Matthew supposed, but he couldn’t be sure that she hadn’t meant something else. He still wonders just what she did mean.)
Belinda says, “Bye, honey,” to Leila. She gives her a kiss and a pat. “Don’t you stay out too late.”
“You either,” says Leila. She gives Matthew and her mother another smile. Matthew gives her another half grin. As she closes the door behind them, she says, “Have fun, you two.” Again, her tone may not be quite appropriate.
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Reservations Recommended is published in paperback by Picador, a division of St. Martin’s Press, at $12.00.
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Copyright © 1990 by Eric Kraft
Reservations Recommended 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 publisher.
First published by Crown Publishers, Inc., 201 East 50th Street, New York, New York 10022. Member of the Crown Publishing Group.
Now available in paperback from Picador USA, a division of St. Martin’s Press.
For information about publication rights outside the U. S. A., audio rights, serial rights, screen rights, and so on, e-mail Alec “Nick” Rafter, the author’s earnest agent.
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.