Chapter 4: Superior Indian Cookery
Part 1: Liz Makes a Date
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is at work, in his office, two floors from the top of a two-year-old building
in the section of Boston that was once the garment district and is now
the financial district, where construction has been booming for the last
several years. At the former location of Manning & Rafter, the
executive offices were actually within the factory. Now the factories
are in Hong Kong, Korea, and Mexico, and Manning & Rafter doesn’t own
them. The company has become a client of a contractor based in Hong
Kong who delivers toys at a specified time, for a specified price, and
farms the work out in a baffling international shuffle that meets his deadlines
and maximizes his profits. When the last of the domestic manufacturing
operation was eliminated and the factory became an echoing space, management
moved into this tower, where there is no evidence of the manufacturing
side of the business at all. By day, the building is full of executives
and their clerical help; at night, vanloads of Haitian women arrive to
clean it. Matthew’s office, it has occurred to him, faces the wrong
way; the view extends beyond the harbor and the airport, out over the Atlantic,
but he spends much of his day in telephonic conference with Hong Kong.
When he first came to Manning & Rafter, he liked to spend part of each
day mixing with the workers, watching the toys move along the line, finding
out whether the workers’ children played with the toys they made, and if
so what they thought of them. On his first trip to Korea to conduct
an unnecessary inspection of the plant there, he asked all the questions
he used to ask the men in Boston. The answers he got, filtered through
translation, were cautious, polite, subservient, and useless. Now,
on these inspection trips, he spends most of his time in meetings, in restaurants,
or in his hotel. He used to be proud that he understood the technical
aspects of production—materials, manufacturing methods, and so on—but now
he sometimes doesn’t know what the new toys are made of until he reads
the trade names for plastics on spreadsheets.
It’s one of those pellucid winter days that Boston gets in January, when details that usually go unnoticed shine crisp and bright, and ordinary things seem to flaunt themselves, demanding attention. On such days, the eye can see so much farther than usual that one’s context is enlarged. The world seems more complex, overwhelming, packed with things that demand attention, a daunting heap of tiny bits of information, like the mound of sand that Matthew was asked to try to comprehend as individual grains rather than a mound in a session at an executive retreat in the fall, in New Seabury, on the Cape. “See the grains,” said the session leader, “and you’re overwhelmed. See the mound, and you’re missing the details. Learn to switch between visions, and you control your perception of reality.” Matthew sat and listened and did the exercises. He did not take notes. He emerged from the session with a pounding headache. When it was time to write the required evaluation, he summoned BW for help:
Throughout the session, we had the feeling that the company had been bilked by a charlatan in a rumpled tweed jacket. In fact, we were convinced that the jacket, a disguise, a costume worn to meet our expectations of what a psychologist ought to wear, was proof that the charlatan was a charlatan, a crook in psychologist’s clothing. Upon emerging from the session, however, we were astonished to find that as a result of the training we had received in perceiving a mound of sand as individual grains, we were able to perceive the staggering fee the company had paid this tweedy fellow as individual dollar bills! Not a stack of bills, mind you, but individual bills. With just a little more effort, we were able to see the fee as a mound of quarters, and then as individual quarters. We are forced to admit that we really must have learned something. It may take a great deal of company time for practice, but we think that eventually we will be able to perceive the fee as individual pennies, and then we will know that each and every one of them was money well spent.Nothing was ever said about this evaluation. Matthew has been surprised to find that, since the session, he tries the technique every now and then; he’s playing with it now, trying to grasp the view from his windows all at once, as a whole, and then shift to the details and try to perceive them all at once, and then shift back, and so on. When he gets the shifting to work, he can’t seem to stop himself. It’s dizzying, but he can’t stop. He seems to feel the building move.
The intercom on his desk burbles and ends the experiment, just as he is shifting from the whole to the details. “Yes?” Matthew says.
“Mrs. Barber?” says his secretary. There is a question in her voice, and Matthew focuses on that detail. She’s new, and she has never had any contact with Liz. Matthew can imagine her disbelief when the woman on the phone claimed to be his wife, a wife she never knew existed.
“The former Mrs. Barber,” he says, in just the way he would have corrected any other small error, the mispronunciation of the name of a colleague, for example. “I’ll speak to her.”
Suddenly he shifts to the big picture. It’s Liz! Liz is calling him! She must be miserable without him! She must want to get together to see if she can’t talk him into forgiving her for not understanding her own heart! He breaks out in a smile. “Hello, Liz,” he says. He hopes that she can’t tell from his voice that he’s smiling.
“How are you, Matthew?” She sounds lighthearted, relaxed, pleasant, not the way he would expect her to sound if she were going to beg him to take her back. He goes on the alert for any sign that she’s teasing him or wants something from him.
“I’m all right,” he says. “How are you?”
“Oh, okay,” she says. “I’m in town.”
“You are?” He would like to ask her if she’d like to get together. They could have a drink. They might even have dinner. Matthew would be happy to see her, quite happy. He finds it easy to admit this to himself but couldn’t begin to admit it to her. He lets the silence hang for a moment.
“Just for some shopping,” she says. “And a check-up.”
A check-up? he thinks. Cancer. Oh, my God, cancer. A mastectomy. A hysterectomy. Death. “Everything all right?”
“Sure?” Does she mean it? Or is she hiding something? He’s terrified for her at once. His heart accelerates, his tongue tastes of metal, and that reminds him of the time, one fall, years ago now, when she fell in the bathroom. She was wearing panty hose for the first time since the previous spring, she wasn’t used to the slipperiness of them, and she slipped on the tile floor. When he heard her fall and she cried out, he was so afraid for her that he began to sweat and shake, and all the time he was tending to her, cradling her in his arms, she couldn’t stop laughing at her clumsiness, exclaiming how funny she must have looked when her feet whooshed out from under her and repeating, “Well, it’s fall, so I fell,” but he was crying from terror and relief, and he had had the same metallic taste of fear in his mouth that he has now.
“Yes, sure,” Liz says. “Look, um, how would you like to have dinner with me?”
“I’d—” He almost says what is true, that he’d love to have dinner with her, but he catches himself and puts some distance in his voice, trying to make himself sound as if he were speaking to a pal, the way he would have spoken to Belinda before he began having sex with her on the living room floor. “I’d be delighted to have dinner with you. Where would you like to go?”
“How about the Black Hole?”
“Sure! The Black Hole it is. Do you want to have a drink somewhere first?”
“I’m meeting someone.”
“Oh,” he says. Was she smiling when she said that? What does she mean, exactly? Who is she meeting? Should I ask? No. You’re indifferent, he tells himself. You’re a pillar of indifference. “Why don’t we just meet there, then?”
SO HE’S GOING TO HAVE DINNER with Liz at the Black Hole. Showering, dressing, getting ready—it all feels comfortingly familiar. For a while, before they moved out of the city to Lincoln, he and Liz must have eaten at the Black Hole once a week. It was a time when they were eating out nearly every evening because they were both so busy. They’d finally given up on the idea of children, had even abandoned their halfhearted investigation into adoption, and Liz had thrown herself into work at John Hancock, determined to impress people and to rise, and succeeding at both. They kept returning to the Black Hole because it was comfortable in the way that old corduroys are. There was the added comfort of feeling anonymous: even though they ate there so often, no one connected with the place ever gave any sign of recognizing them. How pleasant it is to be no one now and then. They could just sit, talk a little if they were in the mood, or barely talk at all if they were too tired or stunned from work, hiding their silence in the business of eating an Indian meal—tearing bread apart, scooping rice up, transferring curries from bowls to plates. Those were wonderful evenings, it seemed, but after Liz left, Matthew began to wonder. Maybe what he’d taken for silent contentment was to her just silence, or worse. No. All that is over. Fourteen years of marriage. Fourteen months apart. It’s over. She’s coming back.
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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.