Chapter 3: Dolce Far Niente
Part 1: Matthew Acts Out
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Belinda’s birthday fell in the middle of the week, when she and Matthew
were both too busy to celebrate it, they agreed to celebrate this evening,
Friday. When Matthew arrives at Belinda’s, he asks his cabdriver
to wait and dashes up the stairs. The toothsome Leila lets him in.
In her eyes Matthew sees more coy sparkle than usual.
“Come on in,” she says. “Mom’ll be down in a minute. She’s got a surprise for you, and I’m supposed to brace you for it.”
“Brace me?” Now this is provocative; a surprise, and not just a run-of-the-mill surprise, but one for which Matthew must be braced. What might that be? A weasel of a thought crosses his mind, darting from cover to cover, shamefully: the virginal Leila has asked Belinda—no, begged Belinda—to ask Matthew to initiate her in the famous joys of love. He imagines mother and daughter, blushing, stammering, beating around the bush until they finally come out with it, and then the awkward march to the bedroom, the nervous jokes. Mother and daughter, lying side by side, awaiting him, while he folds his clothes. How thrilling! How flattering! How unlikely! The thought slinks off, but not far; it’s sure to return when he’s alone. Disappointed by the thought that whatever the surprise might be, it isn’t likely to be that, he hangs his coat in the hall closet. Leila disappears into the living room, and almost at once Matthew hears her stirring a martini.
“Is that a martini I hear?” he asks. As soon as he’s said it, it strikes him as the wrong kind of line—too old. He just can’t find a way to talk to Leila. He wishes he could, but it’s hopeless.
Leila presents the drink to him, holding the glass by the stem, with both hands, as if she were elevating a chalice. She’s giggling.
“You can tell a martini by the sound?” she asks.
“Ahhhh, yesssss,” Matthew says, drawing it out. He’s trying to imitate W. C. Fields. “A very useful skill in the event of a blackouuuuut. Enables one to find his way to a haven of safety and comforrrrrrt.” Not bad, really not bad, he tells himself. He’s delighted that the bit came to him so quickly—and the words, too. “A haven of safety and comfort”—that really sounds like W. C. Fields, he thinks. He’s feeling pretty loose tonight; he doesn’t feel half as ill at ease with Leila as he usually does. Her breasts are hidden under a heavy sweater, which helps, and— Uh-oh, there’s a blank smile on her face; she probably didn’t recognize W. C. Fields, probably doesn’t even know who W. C. Fields was; nothing in her expression suggests that she does. But wait! Another humorous routine has occurred to Matthew. What the heck, he thinks, I might as well go ahead with it. The girl probably thinks he’s an addled old duffer anyway, maybe he can boost himself up a notch, possibly to funny old coot.
He says, “It really is an unmistakable sound, the mixing of a martini. When I was a kid, radio stations used to have these sound quizzes. They’d play a sound, and if they called you up, you’d try to guess what it was. A toaster popping up, something like that. Rock ’n’ roll stations used to have these.” Ha! That’ll show her. “My mom’s friend—my mom has this cute boyfriend—and he was in on the birth of rock ’n’ roll.” He makes a mental note to tell her about lying in bed with the measles and hearing “Rock Around the Clock” for the first time. Mmm, maybe not. Measles might suggest that he was a sickly child, make him seem weak. He throws himself into the routine that inspiration has thrust upon him, beginning with the voice of the radio announcer: “All right, Mrs. Edward Dingle, for a complete set of waterless cookware, what is this sound?”
Will she know what waterless cookware is? he wonders. Oh, shit, the cab. I should go out and tell the cab to keep waiting. But if I stop this now, I’ll look completely ridiculous. I hope he waits. I hope he doesn’t come to the door or something—make me look ridiculous.
He makes the sound of a martini being stirred, and the gesture of stirring a martini, too, so that Leila will be sure to get it: “Linkala-plinkala, linkala-plinkala, linkala-plinkala.”
Am I making a fool of myself? he asks himself.
In his own voice he continues: “Well, I would recognize that anywhere. It’s a martini. Somebody stirring a martini, but Mrs. Dingle hasn’t the faintest idea.”
In the voice of Mrs. Dingle: “Um, uh, ah, oh, gee.”
In his own voice: “A martini.”
In the voice of the announcer: “Fifteen seconds!”
His own voice: “A martini, damn it, a martini!”
Leila laughs. At the routine, or at me?
Mrs. Dingle: “Somebody stirring tea—”
Matthew: “A martini, Mrs. Dingle, you ignorant teetotaler!”
Mrs. Dingle: “No, not tea—”
Matthew: “Ah! Finally!”
Mrs. Dingle: “Coffee! No—tea. Somebody stirring a cup of tea.”
The announcer: “Oh, I’m sorry, Mrs. Dingle —”
A wavelet of unhappiness washes over Matthew now that he’s finished. His shoulders sag. “Well,” he says. “Something like that.” He can’t believe that he’s just done what he’s just done. He’s not like this. He doesn’t act out. I’m behaving like a lovesick adolescent. In a minute I’ll be crushing beer cans with one hand. No, that’s not a feat anymore—all the beer cans are made of aluminum.
“I—uh—have to go tell the cabdriver to keep waiting,” he says. “I’ll be right back.”
TRUDGING BACK up the steps to the house, Matthew wonders whether those radio quizzes still exist. He hasn’t heard one in years. Perhaps he would if he listened to talk radio or rock ’n’ roll stations, but he doesn’t listen to that sort of thing much anymore. He does listen to rock music now and then, but he can’t enjoy listening to it for any length of time; the oldies make him feel old, and the new stuff makes him feel silly. Usually he starts the day with a dose of public-radio news, and then he listens to the first hour of a classical music program before he leaves for the office. He used to regret that he didn’t have time to listen to the whole program, which continues until noon, but then on a holiday he listened all the way through and found that with each succeeding hour the music was less and less to his liking—the crisp architecture of Bach, the mathematician’s favorite, gave way little by little to things looser and, it seemed, nastier; Bach soothes him, Beethoven worries him, Shostakovich terrifies him. By the final hour, the show seemed to Matthew to have become a hodgepodge of clangorous anger and self-serving interviews that he neither understood nor liked. This discovery that the program wasn’t all Bach led Matthew to the realization that for most of his life he had thought that he was missing something, in the sense that what he was missing was better than what he had. Now he was confronted with the possibility that that assumption was entirely wrong. Perhaps there was no reason to feel that he was missing something better than what he had, no reason at all. Perhaps what he was missing was in fact worse than what he was getting, nothing but the various equivalents of jangling music and carping braggarts. There was certainly no reason to covet that. What a liberating idea this was at first, but, after a little time and thought, what a depressing idea it became. If what he was getting was the best there was, and it seemed none too good, then what was the basis for hope? It is a curse of the mind inclined to sadness that, given time, it will find the rotten spot in even the ripest, most promising idea.
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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.