Chapter 2: Flynn’s Olde Boston Eating & Drinking Establishment
Part 2: Effie’s Crumbs
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is no concierge on duty when Matthew reaches his building. He sets
the bags down, gets his key out, opens the door. A sign on the desk
reads “Concierge on Break.” This sign appears several times a day,
whenever a concierge abandons the post. To Matthew, it seems an invitation
to burglars. He said as much to the manager of the building, who
listened with a puzzled smile, said, “I hadn’t thought of that,” and then
chuckled. The sign has continued to appear, and Matthew supposes
that the staff now regards him as a paranoid crackpot.
The elevator arrives. The door opens, but Matthew waits a moment before entering. He wants to be certain that the floor isn’t going to leap up at him or vanish. Nothing alarming happens, so Matthew steps in, presses the button for his floor, and ascends without incident. It annoys him that he should feel relieved each time he succeeds in getting from the lobby to his apartment.
A piece of paper has been shoved under his door, a memo from the head of the condominium board, a contract lawyer with a great affection for capitalization. She writes: “As many Owners may already know, the Building was burgled sometime during the day today. The Individual or Individuals apparently gained access from the Roof. . . .” Matthew fights the impulse to chuckle. He turns his radio off and takes a quick look around. His apartment hasn’t been entered. Leaving the radio on, as he always does, worked. From his foyer table he takes a point-and-shoot camera. He returns to the hall and snaps a picture of some scraps of paper on the carpet just around the corner from the door to his apartment. Then he carries his bags into the kitchen and fixes himself a drink. He turns the lights on in the dining room and looks into the hole in the wall. The insulation has been removed; Matthew can see the metal framing in the wall and, beyond it, the brick facade of the building. In the cavity are several paper coffee cups from Dunkin’ Donuts. Were these part of the original construction, he wonders, or were they left behind by the smell-search team? One of the workmen has written on the wall, “Can’t smell anything. Until we smell it, there’s nothing we can do.” The motto of the building, thinks Matthew. He sniffs around a bit to see if the odor is still there. It is, but it’s in its quiescent state, subtle enough for the workmen to be able to ignore it. On the wallboard beside the hole, he prints:
TUESDAY: ODOR PERSISTS, BUT WEAK. SOMETHING BURNT? INSULATION? ROTTING SNACK FOODS?Should I put my unit on the market? he asks himself. Matthew has been living in the building for a little more than a year; he has probably thought of selling once a week, on the average. The building is wearing him out. It embarrasses him. He’s sure that he made a mistake in buying into it. He hides this feeling for the sake of his self-respect. He usually doesn’t tell anyone about the slovenly way the building’s managed and maintained, and most of his guests don’t notice what he notices. They wouldn’t notice, for example, the constellation of paper scraps on the carpet in the hall outside his door. These scraps haven’t been vacuumed up in eight days. This particular bit of neglect gives Matthew a certain satisfaction, because he has been snapping pictures of the bits of paper, one picture a day, with his point-and-shoot camera, bought for this purpose, a camera that imprints the date and time on each photograph. He intends to display these photographs at the next owners’ meeting, as evidence of the attitude problem he perceives in the management company that runs the building.
He goes into the den to check the messages on his answering machine. The first is a nonmessage, or an antimessage: the machine’s go-ahead-and-talk whine, a silent hesitation at the other end of the line, the clunking of a handset hanging up, the dial tone, the whine again. Matthew surmises that this was the burglars calling to see if he was at home. He can imagine them coming to his door, hearing the radio, tiptoeing away, and burglarizing his neighbor, the one who cries out in the night, in ecstasy or fear. He can’t help smiling at this thought; he knows he shouldn’t, but he can’t help it. The second message is from the superintendent.
“Mr. Barber? It’s Benny. The super. The guys were in your place again looking for that smell, and they brought someone with them from the contractors again, too. They still aren’t sure where it’s coming from, but they think if they can open the wall up a little more, they might be able to find it. Also they want me to tell you they would like you to give them permission to cut away some of the carpet, because they think it might be mildew or something in the pad. They say they’ll be able to put it back so you won’t even notice, but I wouldn’t let them do it without you being there, so they didn’t do anything except pull out some of the insulation. They want to know if you could meet with them tomorrow to talk about opening the hole up some more and cutting the carpet back. So let me know, okay?”
The third message is from an old friend.
“Hey, Matthew. It’s Jack. I’m going to be in town day after tomorrow—Thursday—and I’m hoping we can get together. I want to have dinner at Flynn’s. You know. ‘Flynn’s—the taste of old Boston.’ Or ‘the scourge of old Boston.’ Whatever. Will you set it up, make the reservations and everything? See if you can get hold of Effie. I’d really love to see her. But get her to leave dickhead at home, okay? I’ll be in sometime in the afternoon, but I’ve got meetings, so I can’t get to Flynn’s until about eight. Make a reservation for nine, and I’ll meet you in the bar between eight and nine. I hope this is all okay. You’re not in Vermont or something, are you? If you don’t get this message, and you’re not there at Flynn’s, I’ll never speak to you again.” Clunk of hanging up, silent stretch, dial tone, whine, snap of the machine shutting off. No more messages.
Matthew goes to the living room and sits looking out over the roofscape, sipping his drink, wondering why Jack would choose Flynn’s. It isn’t the kind of place he would ordinarily enjoy. It’s big and noisy, popular with out-of-towners looking for what the Flynn’s ads call “The Flavor of Olde Boston,” and the flavor of olde Boston is not one of Jack’s favorites.
Twenty years ago Matthew and Jack were in graduate school together, working toward degrees in teaching. They were great friends. They thought of themselves as bohemian, beat, hip, and they were seriously committed to improving the quality of public education. They may even have been passionately committed. All of that seems like a joke to Matthew now. The memory of it makes him feel naïve and foolish. He was recruited by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Now he sometimes feels that he was conned, but at the time he and Jack—and their pal Effie—really considered the public schools the best long-term hope for the downtrodden and desperate. Each of them taught for a couple of years, and each of them left teaching disappointed and angry. Jack and Matthew have kept some interest in the development of young people, though. Matthew supplies them with toys that expand their imagination and hone their motor skills (though such toys don’t appeal to them half as much as jingo killer dolls and long-legged plastic housewives that look like hookers). Jack makes television commercials that teach them how to act when they drink, drive, deodorize, and go into debt. Jack’s work seems glamorous to Matthew, but Jack claims that it isn’t glamorous at all, that the stars treat him like shit, and that he wants to make videos instead. Matthew thinks this is false modesty, intended to make him feel better about his own work and compromises.
Effie. Ah, Effie. Effie may have been a terrible teacher by every objective measure, too full of pep for her own good, so eager to give what she knew that it spilled out of her as if through a burst dike, making her seem disorganized, confused, and ill prepared in front of a class, but Matthew and Jack decided that she was the best natural teacher of all of them, and since she was also pretty in a flyaway sort of way, they took to her at once. She lived alone in a small apartment not far from Matthew’s. She had a car—a battered Volkswagen—and gave Matthew rides to the school where they did their practice teaching. She knew rock musicians and folk singers, and that made her life seem thrilling and bold to Matthew, risky. Sometimes, when he arrived in the morning, he smelled marijuana in the apartment. The idea that he knew someone who smoked marijuana with her morning coffee was thrilling. Usually he would get to her place early, and she would be running late. From the first, she was only partly dressed when he arrived. He would pour himself coffee while she bustled around, and he would ignore her limber little body, on principle, because he believed, or managed to make himself believe, that not making any sort of advance was cool, that the chummy, sexless domesticity they shared for half an hour showed how sophisticated and modern they were, the vanguard of a new social order, in which the brightest and best would teach the poor and sad, in which men and women could work together without fucking, without even thinking about fucking. He never touched her, never tried.
Actually, Matthew was too intimidated by her to make advances. He believed that she was an extremist, politically, socially, culturally, that she spent nights in smoky rooms debating politics, planning strikes, printing leaflets—that is, when she wasn’t up till the small hours in clubs, after the clubs had closed, when the real music happened, when everyone got stoned and snipped away at the fabric of conventional society. He supposed she must be an extremist sexually as well, and that, if he ever did make an advance, what she would want or expect from him might be something he didn’t know how to deliver. He told himself that there was no sense risking a friendship by trying to turn it into something else, and he admitted to himself that there was no use risking an embarrassing failure, either.
But what a crush he had on her, and what fantasies he entertained! One morning she was still in bed when he arrived. She called out from the bedroom to say that she couldn’t get up. “I don’t think I’m sick,” she said. “I just can’t get out of bed, you know? I do this to myself. I wear myself out. I just can’t do it today.” Matthew made coffee and toast. She sat up in bed when he brought it to her. She wasn’t wearing anything. When she sat up, she pulled the bedsheet over her breasts, but it kept sliding down and she didn’t pay much attention to keeping it up. He tried not to look at her little breasts, because he couldn’t decide how to look at them, what attitude to take toward them. She didn’t seem to care whether he looked or not. He sat on the bed, they talked for a while, and he began to grow annoyed at how completely at ease she was. Some crumbs of toast fell onto her breasts, tiny bits like grains of sand, and for a moment he thought that he wouldn’t be able to keep himself from brushing them off. Then he thought that he might ask her if he could brush them off. Or maybe he might mutter, “Crumbs,” as a prefatory justification and then brush them off. Or perhaps it would be best not to touch her, just to say something about the crumbs. Maybe that would be enough, since it would make her aware that he had noticed the crumbs and she would figure out that he must therefore have noticed her breasts, too, and there would be a suggestion that he was concerned about her welfare, at least to the extent of not wanting her made uncomfortable by crumbs on her breasts, and that might be the start of something. He could say something like “You have some crumbs on those lovely breasts,” or even just “You have crumbs on your breasts.”
What he did say was, “You’re getting crumbs on you.” Effie looked at her breasts, flicked the crumbs away with her hand, and went back to eating. Nothing else happened, nothing at all. Later, Matthew drove to school in Effie’s car, wondering whether she had wanted him to try anything. No, he decided. They were friends, that was that, and a friendship like theirs was certainly something wonderful, something worth preserving, worth making sacrifices for, even the sacrifice of sex. Still, the thought kept returning that surely she must have some feelings like his. If so, why hadn’t she given him some sign? She wouldn’t have had to invite him into bed with her, but she could have said something just a little provocative. “Are you sure you feel like going to school today?” Something.
He was depressed as hell by the time he reached school. Everything annoyed him—the children, the other teachers, everything. He began to think that teaching wasn’t for him.
Effie recently finished law school and has been doing volunteer work, defending indigents and championing hopeless causes. She has never lost her sense of outrage. Matthew hasn’t seen Effie in nearly a year, but every month or so he gets the urge to call her, always during the day, when, he assumes, her husband is not around. It is, partly, an urge to talk about important things—issues, ideas—but Matthew recognizes that there’s another motive behind these calls that are never made, and that recognition is the reason they’re never made.
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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.
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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.