“WE’VE INVITED YOU AND BELINDA to join us,” says Harold when Matthew returns. He’s smiling, trying to look relaxed, and trying, really trying, not to look down the front of Belinda’s dress. He’s losing both struggles, Matthew notices. Droplets of sweat dot his upper lip, and his eyes keep darting to Belinda’s cleavage. The headwaiter is holding menus, ready to show the four of them to a single table; there seems to be no escape. Matthew and Belinda resign themselves, allow themselves to be led. Maybe, each thinks on the way to the table, this won’t be so bad. It might even be fun — who knows?
They are shown to a table beside the glass-covered portion of wall. As soon as they sit down, Gwen takes a look around the room and sends up a wailing complaint: “Oh, everyone here is so young.”
So much for the possibility that it might not be so bad, thinks Belinda, but she’s grateful to Gwen for not actually bursting into tears or thumping her breast.
Matthew can’t keep himself from surveying the other diners to see whether Gwen is right. He’s pleased to find that, with the exception of a child of six or so at the next table who has just knocked his water glass over, they don’t seem so terribly young to him. Harold and Gwen must be about ten years older than he and Belinda, he decides.
“Do you realize how much effort has gone into making this place look like a wreck?” he says.
“Oh?” says Harold, as if he hadn’t noticed. “I hadn’t noticed.” He looks around. “Reminds me of my childhood home,” he claims.
Matthew gives him a chuckle, as a gift. He wonders how much truth there is behind the remark. At the office, Harold — what is his name? — always conducts himself as if he comes from wealth, his manner a pretense to upper-class disdain, but the truth is widely known: he’s the son of immigrant parents who are still living, still speaking with embarrassing accents. Matthew has marveled that Harold apparently doesn’t realize that everyone recognizes that he’s only an aspirant to the genuine article, merely a snob.
“Oh. Look at that,” says Matthew. “I hadn’t noticed the leak stains over there. See? On the ceiling? They’re probably painted on, aren’t they? Trompe l’oeil leaks. They really look kind of attractive, the way they spread out that way.”
“Like a topographic map,” suggests Harold, after a moment’s hesitation.
“Yes!” says Matthew. “And then the way they continue down the wall in sort of graceful waves.”
“Like high-water marks along the shore,” Harold offers, following a period of desperate invention.
“Mm-hm,” says Matthew.
“Or the folds of Belinda’s — ah — neckline,” says Harold, responding to a genuine flash of inspiration. Having mentioned it, he seizes the opportunity he’s given himself to glance down it, smiling as he does so a satisfied, oleaginous smile.
“Very good, Harold,” says Matthew.
“He could be a writer,” says Gwen. “I keep telling him he should write a book.”
“You know,” says Matthew, quite deliberately ignoring Gwen’s remark, “this whole place gives me reason to take heart. You see,” he says, addressing Harold and Gwen, “my apartment has a mysterious — odor.” He tells the whole story, but this time there’s a different quality to his telling. Under the influence of this setting, his trial has become a story. “So you see,” he says after telling it, “this place has given me an idea. I’ve been looking at this problem in the wrong way. My thinking has been all wrong.” He smacks himself on the forehead. “I’ve been thinking that I have to fix the place up when they finally get rid of the smell. I thought I had to bring it back to the condition it was in when I moved in. Make it brand new again. But now that I look around here, I see I don’t have to do that at all.”
“Ah-ha!” says Harold. “Here you have an entirely new aesthetic.”
“L’esthétique du mal,” says Belinda.
“Very good,” says Harold. “And if you embrace this esthétique du mal, it will save you a great deal of trouble and expense.”
“You bet. Why repair the damage? I could just put some clear plastic over the hole in the wall — ”
“Right. Why bother? Glue the old pieces of carpet back in place.”
“Forget it. Leave the pad exposed.”
“Good. Good. Very good.” Matthew takes another look around, on the lookout for decorating tips. Something is missing, something that would be the perfect touch: one of the writings of the Neat Graffitist. What would fit here? He’ll have to look through his collection and see, but here’s a possibility, selected from the writings Matthew has copied into his notebook:
ON SATURDAY, I WAS EATING SOME CHICKEN HERE, AT THIS SPOT, AND IT WAS PRETTY GOOD, BUT I GOT A BITTER TASTE IN MY MOUTH AND IT SPOILED EVERYTHING. THIS IS HOW IT IS.
Have you missed an episode or two or several?
You can begin reading at the beginning or you can catch up by visiting the archive or consulting the index to the Topical Guide.
You can listen to the episodes on the Personal History podcast. Begin at the beginning or scroll through the episodes to find what you’ve missed.
You can listen to “My Mother Takes a Tumble” and “Do Clams Bite?” complete and uninterrupted as audiobooks through YouTube.
You can ensure that you never miss a future issue by getting a free subscription. (You can help support the work by choosing a paid subscription instead.)
At Apple Books you can download free eBooks of Little Follies and Herb ’n’ Lorna.
You’ll find overviews of the entire work in An Introduction to The Personal History, Adventures, Experiences & Observations of Peter Leroy (a pdf document) and at Encyclopedia.com.