THE RESTAURANT is in a building that used to be a service station for the trucks that were kept here. It seems a small and frightened thing, cowering in the presence of the towering. It has been decorated, inside and out, at great expense, to look like a ruin. Here and there are artful imitations of patches of peeling stucco, baring brick beneath. One window has been painstakingly painted with some clear goo to make it look as if there are bullet holes in it. Just inside the door a safe stands crazily, one corner embedded in the floor as if it had fallen from a great height. A section of one interior wall has been torn away along a jagged line, the vacancy covered with glass, so that the plumbing and wiring and heating ducts show. It reminds Matthew of his apartment.
Belinda’s coat has done something to her; she strides into the restaurant with an assertiveness that Matthew has never seen in her before.
Almost as soon as they have entered the room, a voice from the bar calls, “Matthew!” Matthew turns at the sound of his name and recognizes Harold, chief of the engineering department at Manning & Rafter Toys, a man Matthew has some contact with nearly every week, with whom he has worked closely on the development of a new toy, a plastic press for molding bricks of sand. At this moment, taken by surprise, he can remember this man only as Harold. “Hello!” Matthew says brightly, far more warmly than he would if he were able to remember Harold’s last name, very much as if he had been hoping that he might run into Harold here. What the hell is his name? he asks himself. It won’t come, won’t come at all. Harold’s motioning to him, making large loops in the air with his hand, inviting him into the bar. With Harold is his wife, whom Matthew has met several times. He cannot remember even her first name. He decides not to bother with introductions; he’ll say a quick hello, and he and Belinda will retreat into the dining room.
Harold and his wife make ecstatic noises inspired by the coat. Belinda obliges them by doing her model’s turn, making the coat flare as she whirls.
“It’s a birthday present,” says Belinda.
“We’re here to celebrate,” says Matthew. He begins to back away, taking Belinda by the arm.
“Well, so are we!” booms Harold. “It’s Gwen’s birthday, too.” Gwen. Of course. “Let us buy you a drink!”
Neither Matthew nor Belinda is good at saying no in situations like this. Neither of them can say the truthful thing, that they would rather go to their table and eat their dinner alone. Instead they say, “Oh,” and, “Well,” and before they know it Harold has summoned the bartender, who stands behind the bar and regards them expectantly, waiting for their orders. What can they do? They order.
“So the coat is a gift from you, Matthew?” asks Harold.
“No,” Matthew says. At first he’s surprised that Harold would think he had given the coat to Belinda, but then he realizes that of course it must look that way. It’s Belinda’s birthday, Matthew brought her here to celebrate, and she’s wearing a new fur coat; therefore Matthew must have given it to her. Logical thinking is the source of so many errors. “Belinda bought it herself,” he explains. “I gave her a necklace.” (“Necklace” is a little grand for the simple gold chain Matthew gave her, a nice enough gift, but not one that made much of a statement.)
“Oh, yes,” says Belinda, “Matthew gave me a beautiful chain.” She throws the coat open, spreading her arms wide, and there is the chain, gleaming against more of Belinda’s chest than Matthew has ever before seen displayed in a public setting. He is astonished, but he is very pleased with himself to find that he does not say “Wow,” or “Gosh.”
“Wow,” says Harold. For an instant there’s the strong possibility that he may reach out and hook his finger through the bottom curve of the chain, which lies almost out of sight between Belinda’s breasts, but he thinks better of it, and to ensure that he doesn’t lose control of his hands, he puts them in his pockets. “That’s lovely,” he says. “Really lovely.”
“Let me check the coat,” Matthew says. He realizes that he has said “the coat,” not “your coat.” He slips it off Belinda’s shoulders and is startled to discover that her dress, which has so little front, has no back. Black crepe falls from Belinda’s shoulders in languid folds to an arc below her waist. Catenary arc, he thinks, and because he has little control left he says, at last, “Wow.”
He checks the coat. The young woman who is both coat-check girl and greeter takes it from him as if it were a child and smiles in a way that seems to suggest that if there are fur coats like this one to be had, she might be interested in seeing more of Matthew. He is, he realizes, almost certainly a victim of wishful thinking in so interpreting that smile, but he gets a nice lift from it anyway.
[to be continued on Thursday, March 30, 2023]
In Topical Guide 461, Mark Dorset considers Aesthetics; Style; and Engineering: Catenary Arc, Curve, and Arch from this episode.
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