Chapter 3: Dolce Far Niente
Part 8: In the Midst of the Fountain of Wit
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food is absolutely wonderful. It ought to be enough to make the evening
magnificent, and for a while it is. Eating is such a great pleasure
that the four of them speak very little, and when they do they talk only
about the food. Were it not for the persistent whining of the boy
at the next table, they might be in paradise. When they have finished
they lean back, contented, regarding one another with the generosity of
spirit a full stomach brings. This lovely moment doesn’t last, though,
for Harold has complaining on his mind. Eating always reminds him
of his childhood, and his childhood shames him because as a boy he resented
his parents for working so hard and having so little time for him.
As he grew older and began to see what all that work had cost them, and
to admit that they had really thought they were doing it for him, he became
ashamed of his childhood self for misunderstanding them. He has become
a tireless champion of his parents, whom he now considers self-sacrificing,
quietly suffering, wronged. Whenever he feels especially content,
after a meal, and particularly at the end of a fine evening when he has
not only eaten well but supposes he has been clever, then, as Lucretius
put it, “in the midst of the fountain of wit there arises something bitter,
which stings in the very flowers.” In Harold’s case it’s the memory
of the injustice he did his saintly parents, and that bitter memory must
be sweetened with praise of them, at the expense of anyone in his vicinity.
“You know,” he says with a sigh, “it’s a shame you can’t deal with people on the basis of trust.”
Since Matthew and Belinda do not recognize this as the preamble to a story about Harold’s self-sacrificing parents, the remark seems to them to have come from nowhere. Gwen, poor Gwen, recognizes it very well—not the specific words, perhaps, but the tone. She too sighs. Her sigh might be taken for endorsement.
“I used to think you could,” Harold goes on. “That you could deal with people on the basis of trust. I was very trusting.”
Belinda has figured it out now, not in the specifics, but she’s recognized the tone. She knows he’s going to expound some personal philosophy. Something cynical and annoying. She’s had about all she can take. She’s wearing a mocking look, though she isn’t aware of it. Harold’s a jerk, she has decided, and some part of her no longer cares whether he or anyone else knows how she feels.
“It used to be that someone told me something,” says Harold, “and I believed it. Someone gave me his word, and I took it. I got this from my father. My father loved everybody, trusted everybody. He was a truly kind and generous man. He ran a model shop—sold model trains, kits, magazines about model railroading, things like that.”
“Sounds like a dream world,” Matthew says, hoping to change the tone. Harold, thinking of the terrible injustice to come in the story, almost glares at him. “I mean,” says Matthew, “it must have been fun, hanging around the store when you were a kid. I know I would have loved it.”
Harold raises a hand. “That’s beside the point,” he says. “I want to illustrate something about human nature. So, my father had a shop, and he was a friend to all the children in town. The shop always had kids in it—”
“And they stole from him,” says Belinda. Her voice, her look, her attitude, say that this is an old story.
“Yes,” says Harold. “That’s right. They did. They would slip tubes of glue in their pockets. Magazines under their shirts. Somehow they would get whole model kits out of the store. You’re not surprised, are you? It doesn’t seem to matter much, does it? Boys will be boys, right? The petty thefts of children aren’t particularly significant. Who knows, maybe you’re right. But that’s not my story. Permit me to tell my story.”
Belinda spreads her hands open, palms down. “Tell your story,” she says, too polite to permit herself to add, “You pompous asshole.”
“My father and mother did all the work in the shop themselves, except for one part-time assistant. A widow.”
Matthew looks down at his plate. He busies himself poking a bit of food around. He’s reminded of his own mother, widowed by the Second World War.
“A charity case, actually. She had one child—”
A small, fat boy, thinks Matthew. An object of ridicule. A boy with no father to stand behind him, lend him strength against the taunts of bigger, powerful boys, boys with fathers.
“She had almost nothing, and a child to support. So my father gave her a job. He made her his assistant. It worked out quite well. She was very thorough, a hard worker. Because she was so good, my father got the idea of opening a second shop a couple of towns away. The widow could run the first shop while my mother and father got the new one going, and if it was successful they’d hire another manager for the other store, and they wouldn’t be mere shopkeepers any longer, they’d be running a chain. A couple of magnates, for God’s sake. Well, that’s just what they did. The widow took over the shop. Her boy used to come in after school and sit at a table in the back, doing his homework.”
By himself, thinks Matthew.
“Harold, you know what?” says Belinda.
“What?” asks Harold.
“Today is the official celebration of my birthday, and I would rather not hear the rest of this story.”
“Because it is not going to be a happy story, Harold, and as the birthday girl I would like to hear only happy stories today.”
“Gwen is a ‘birthday girl,’ too, I might remind you,” says Harold.
“And I’ll bet she doesn’t want to hear any unhappy stories today, either,” says Belinda. She doesn’t look at Gwen.
“Well,” says Harold. He does look at Gwen. Gwen looks into her plate.
Something brushes Matthew’s foot. A rat? Belinda’s foot? Gwen’s foot? Matthew glances under the table and is amazed to find the child from the next table investigating the glass-covered section of the wall. He can understand that it would be an object of curiosity for a child but thinks that this child should not have been permitted to crawl over his feet to investigate it, should not, in fact, have been brought to this restaurant at all. The parents, a glance tells Matthew, don’t seem to care what the boy is up to. Matthew leans across the table and says to his companions, in a voice of steely calm, “I don’t want to alarm any of you, but there is something crawling under our table. It’s—a child.”
Belinda leaps up from her chair. She looks terrified. At first, Matthew doesn’t connect this behavior with what he has said. His first thought is that Harold has kicked her. “A child! A child!” she nearly shrieks. Matthew can’t believe what he’s hearing. Harold and Gwen snap upright.
People turn their heads. Waiters hustle over. Belinda cries, “A child is under our table!” She puts a hand to her forehead as if she were about to swoon. Matthew isn’t at all sure whether he’s amused—and therefore pleased, or embarrassed—and therefore annoyed. He is certainly astonished.
Harold lifts a corner of the tablecloth and peeks underneath, wearing a look of apprehension and disgust and making such a good job of his performance that Matthew can’t tell whether he’s actually revolted by the idea of a child under the table or just playing along, playing, perhaps, an elaborate game of flirtation with Belinda. “Oh, how revolting!” he says, and with this one patrician utterance, all his snobbery is redeemed as far as Matthew is concerned. You can’t just improvise that tone. You have to have been putting it on forever. Harold squares his shoulders, takes a deep breath, and reaches under the table as if he were performing an act of heroism. He brings out a terrified, red-faced boy, draws himself up to full height, and demands of the room at large, “Who is responsible for this?” He holds the boy at arm’s length. As if he stank, thinks Matthew.
The boy’s mother rushes over to claim him but doesn’t say a word, in the hope that the whole embarrassing affair will end at once and dissipate like an odor; but Harold has the audience he’s always longed for, and he isn’t about to let it go so easily. “Allow me to suggest,” he says, plummily orotund, “that you get the little deviate some good psychiatric help before he makes a career of molesting women in restaurants.” The mother almost slinks away. Gwen, her mouth hanging open, wonders if she hasn’t been wrong about Harold. Perhaps there is a vigorous, even outrageous, man beneath that pompous skin; perhaps she should have encouraged him more.
To the waiter, standing nearby, looking aghast but struggling to keep himself from laughing, Harold says, “I think you’d better bring us a round of drinks. We’re pretty shaken up. The women have been through quite an ordeal.”
“No. No, thanks,” says Belinda. “Nothing for me.” She has remained standing.
“You’re not going?” says Harold.
“Yes,” says Belinda. “I think so.”
“The evening’s young. You can’t be tired.”
“No.” She smiles a freezing smile. “Not at all. It’s just that I want to go back to Matthew’s and screw.”
The waiter laughs out loud.
ON THE WAY OUT, Belinda pauses at the door, throws the collar of the
coat up, spins around to look at the room again, the details of artificial
decay, the peeling plaster, the water stain, the tipsy safe, the open wall,
and says in her best Bette Davis voice, “What a dump!”
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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.