Chapter 3: Dolce Far Niente
Part 6: Hilarious Harold
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is hurt. She has been working on Picture Frame for months, and she’s
proud of having elevated it above the level of a game. She’s annoyed
with herself for not having done it justice, and she can feel in her throat
the possibility of tears if she tries to speak. She would be grateful
if Matthew would say something, do something, anything to end this torture,
change the subject, rescue her. He doesn’t, but the waiter does.
“Excuse me,” says the waiter. “Am I interrupting?”
Belinda takes a deep breath, shakes her head.
“Would you like to order? Or would you like some more time?”
“More time,” says Harold. “I haven’t even looked at the menu yet.” Harold picks up his menu, barely glances at it, and asks Matthew, “Have you been to Italy?”
“I’ve never been anywhere,” says Matthew. And he thinks, It’s true. He hasn’t been anywhere. He and Liz spent a weekend in Montreal now and then, and Matthew has traveled on business, but he doesn’t feel as if he has really been anywhere. He makes visits to Hong Kong and Taiwan and Mexico to check on the manufacturing of toys, but they are like inspection tours of a huge plant, not like traveling in foreign cultures. Suddenly he misses what he never had, the footloose travel of a young man, afoot in Europe, a student wandering around, having experiences that he would never forget.
“I hear that Italy is extremely expensive now,” says Gwen. “When we were in Italy, I think we probably never spent more than three dollars on a meal—”
“Really?” says Harold, as if astonished. “Were we traveling together?”
“Oh, come on, Harold,” says Gwen. “It’s true—”
“Well, it’s almost true,” says Harold.
“All right. We never spent more than five dollars.”
Belinda finishes her drink. She looks around for their waiter. She would like to eat and run.
“And for that we used to have wine,” says Gwen, “and huge meals. I mean, I thought they were going to charge us extra on the plane, for the weight we’d gained.”
“Or duty,” says Harold. He’s almost bouncing on his chair. To Belinda, he looks like a boy who has to go to the bathroom, but he’s merely full of something he thinks is funny. “Say,” he says in a tone of official suspicion, “isn’t that Italian fat you’re carrying there?” He makes a tummy-poking gesture. Matthew gets it, after a moment’s uncertainty: Harold is supposed to be a customs officer interrogating Harold and Gwen on their return from Italy. Matthew laughs, after a fashion; to be precise, he smiles and makes a snorting sound. He too looks for the waiter.
Harold doesn’t quit. “Why, ah, yes, ah, the missus and I really tucked into the pasta—” Now Matthew’s confused again. Harold can’t be playing himself. This must be a parody of what Harold supposes a middle-class Midwesterner to be like. Belinda’s fascinated now. She wonders why Gwen has stayed married to this bloated buffoon. Maybe he has a giant cock, she tells herself, and she giggles. Her giggle encourages Harold.
“You’re going to have to declare that, you know,” he continues. Now Gwen is giggling, out of all proportion to the humor of Harold’s routine, giggling like a crazy woman. She seems to think Harold is hilarious, thinks Belinda. Is he? I can’t tell. I must be losing my perspective on what’s funny.
“Oh, Harold,” says Gwen. “You’re crazy. But anyway, our friends Edith and Dan just came back from a week in Italy, and they said they spent a hundred and forty dollars on lunch. Lunch!”
“But we went when we were kids,” says Harold. “We only had five dollars to spend on a meal.”
“But a hundred and forty dollars on lunch. Are things that expensive, or are Dan and Edith just gluttonous?” She laughs at this; she’s surprising herself. She’s usually content to leave the wit to her husband. Perhaps she’s feeling a little loose because it’s her birthday. Maybe she should have one drink. Well, maybe not. “I mean, maybe they spend a hundred and forty dollars on lunch all the time. I don’t know. Can you do that?”
“Sure,” says Matthew.
“We don’t eat out that often,” says Gwen, “but Harold keeps track of restaurants. He reads the reviews and so on. But I don’t think you’ve come across many places where someone would spend a hundred and forty dollars on lunch, have you?”
Harold pulls a face. He is about to speak as an expert. “Oh, it certainly is possible. If a person is determined to spend money. Order a good bottle of wine, and—”
“Oh, of course, wine,” says Gwen. The thought of a drink flits across her mind again, lighthearted as a debutante. “But you would know, wouldn’t you, Matthew? You eat out quite a bit, I’ll bet.”
“Oh, a bit.”
“Could two people spend a hundred and forty dollars on lunch?”
“At many places,” Matthew says. “Seasons, Aujourd’hui, the Ritz—”
“Here?” asks Gwen. “Have you eaten lunch here?”
“I did come for lunch, last week. I got out for considerably less than a hundred and forty dollars.”
“Casing the joint, eh?” suggests Harold.
“Well, yes, in a way.”
“Oh, that’s sweet,” says Gwen. “You wanted to make sure it would be good enough for Belinda’s birthday?”
Matthew just smiles and shrugs. “You were saying that you read the reviews?” he asks Harold.
“Gwen said that,”says Harold. “I don’t know where she thinks I get the time for—”
“Oh, cut it out, Harold,” says Gwen. “You know you do. You read all those reviews. He reads them out loud. When he comes home, while I’m getting dinner ready, he reads reviews. We used to have a drink then, you know, but now that we don’t drink, Harold reads restaurant reviews. You know, I was thinking that I might have one drink. Since it’s my birthday.”
“Waiter!” Harold calls at once. The waiter comes to the table, and Harold orders Gwen a Kir Royale.
“Do you read these reviews every night?” Belinda asks.
“Yes!” says Harold, as if astonished to find that this is true. This is one of his odder affectations, delivering answers to questions about himself as if they startled him, as if he were crying “Eureka!” to discoveries about his life. Matthew wonders whether he thinks that this makes him seem more interesting. Then, as if a new thought has struck him, Harold says, “Well, no, not every night. Some nights I give demonstrations of positions in the Kama Sutra, some nights I read the comic strips, some nights I play the guitar and sing old Motown hits—”
“Oh, Harold, you do not,” says Gwen, laughing again.
“I didn’t know anyone actually read restaurant reviews,” Matthew says, fishing.
“Which ones do you read?” asks Belinda. “Have you found any that are reliable?” Under the table, Matthew presses his knee against hers. She smiles a conspiratorial smile for Matthew, though she is facing Harold.
“Oh, I think they’re all a bunch of nonsense,” says Harold. “I’m sure there are payoffs involved—”
“Really? You mean that?” Matthew asks. “You think the restaurants pay for good reviews?”
“Oh, not directly,” says Harold. “But I’m sure restaurants that advertise in a magazine or paper get better reviews than those that don’t.”
“You really think so?” asks Belinda.
“Of course,” says Harold. “Don’t be naïve.”
Matthew glances at Belinda but isn’t sure what he sees in her expression. She may be getting angry. Why on earth did I let us get stuck with these people? he asks himself. Why are we spending time with them? Belinda’s trying, really trying, I can see that. I wonder how long she’ll be able to sustain the effort. How do I get us out of this? It would be a grand gesture for him to get to his feet abruptly and announce that he has really had enough of all this, and that he wants to take Belinda back to his place and make love to her. It isn’t the sort of gesture Matthew’s likely to make, but it would be grand if he did.
“I hate this!” announces the child at the next table, smacking his fork into a plate of fusilli Bolognese.
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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.
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Now available in paperback from Picador USA, a division of St. Martin’s Press.
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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.