Sunday, January 29, 2012

From the Archives - fiction - A Dinner Appointment


Introduction

During college, I had an English class assignment to analyze one of Hemingway’s literary techniques.  I went (I thought) one better and, in addition to the paper, wrote a short story imitating (and thus illustrating) the technique.  The teaching assistant didn’t like this idea at all, and not only refused to read the story part but gave me like a B-minus on the paper.  Since I had a pretty good handle on my quality control by that point, I concluded that he was punishing me for my cheeky idea.  The episode left a bad taste in my mouth, which is perhaps why in memory I chalked the story itself up as a failure.  Coming across it again a couple decades later, I think it’s not bad at all. 

In case you’re interested, this story illustrates the technique of “omission.”  Here’s how I described it in my paper:  “Omission in Hemingway’s writing is his technique of centering the prose around ideas and descriptions that have been omitted.  Hemingway believed that in writing he could omit anything, as long as he knew he had omitted it, and that this would improve the writing by making the reader feel what had not been stated.  Lofty emotional description was replaced by simple and  objective physical descriptions designed to alert the reader that something  important had intentionally been left out.  In this way, and through an  understanding of the characters and situations involved, the reader would sense the emotions that are not directly described.”

A Dinner Appointment – March 2, 1992  

It wasn’t a good wine.  Carlo Rossi burgundy, in a large glass jug with a screw‑top.  The wine left a scum along the side of the jug.  He  held his little finger through the small round handle and balanced the jug on the crook of his arm while he took a long, hard drink:  just like in the westerns.

When he got to her place she was almost ready to go.  He straightened the collar of his shirt and tugged at the pleat in his slacks.  He looked at her baggy jeans and faded sweatshirt and sighed.  This was their “anniver­sary” dinner.  After standing awhile he walked over to her bed and sat down.

“So where are we going?” she asked.

“Well, where would you like to go?”

“I don’t know.  I don’t have a preference.  I want you to decide.”

“Did you have any ideas?”

“No.  Surprise me.  Where are we going?”

“I thought we’d just walk up to Zach’s.  Is that cool with you?”

“Well did you call?  What’s the wait?  Won’t that take kind of long?”

“What, are we in a hurry?”

She was looking for her shoes.

He looked at the nail on his thumb where he had missed with a hammer.  That was months ago, and the little purple spot had gradually moved its way down the nail until it was just a half‑circle at the very edge.  This was the worst part, when the edge of the nail seems to rot and flake away.  He looked  up.  She was ready.  She was just standing there waiting.

He stood and hugged her.  Her face was turned to  the side.  He began to stroke her hair. 

“My hair’s still wet,” she said.

He looked at her back in the full-length mirror.  Her eyes were pointed down at the floor.  He looked at his own face.  He looked away. 

“All right, let’s go,” she said, breaking away from him. 

They walked down the driveway towards the sidewalk.  Tree branches hung over them.  He didn’t know what kind of trees they were.  He knew very little about trees.  They weren’t interesting.  Her hand was stuffed in the pocket of her baggy jeans.  They made their way to College Avenue and he began to turn right, down the sidewalk. 

“This way,” she said, beginning to cross the street.  The evening traffic crawled by in both directions.  He  took her hand now, as they crossed the intersection.  It was easy enough taking it out of her pocket. 

“Hey, look out!” she said, pulling him back.  He had just walked out in front of a car he hadn’t seen. 

“Aw, he’ll stop.”  He continued across the street, pulling her along.  It was a big white Lincoln Continental and he glared at the driver.  When they got to the other side of the street he released her hand.  They both put their hands in their pockets.

The line at the restaurant streamed out the open door onto the sidewalk.  He took his place in line.  “Well aren’t you going to see how long the wait is?” she demanded.  He  looked at his watch.  It was only seven thirty.  He wandered in and a man with a clipboard greeted him. 

“How long is the wait?” he asked.  He looked at his watch again.  It was  seven thirty‑one. 

“Twenty minutes.”

He looked at her, started to say something, and stopped.  He looked back  at the man with the clipboard.  “Twenty minutes is fine.”

They moved up to the counter.  “What should we get?” he asked.

“You decide.”

He ordered and they walked into the narrow passage  around the corner from the counter, where two tall stools were set up next to a  little shelf where people could put their drinks. 

She fiddled with the magnetic clasp on her purse.  She popped it open and closed, open and  closed.  She stared at it while she popped it.  He’d seen this before:  someone staring closely at something uninteresting.  Once it was a friend on mescaline who really was interested.  The other time it was some girl.  He sighed.  The wall was covered with framed artwork promising a great dining  experience.

Now she had moved on to her shoe.  She picked at the welt between the sole and the upper, popping her fingernail over the seam.  He leaned towards her and tried to peer in at her eyes.  She let go of her shoe and began popping her purse again.  He reached to her face and pushed up the edges of her mouth up with his finger and thumb.  She turned away.

“That’s some serious fidgeting you’re doing there.”

She turned her face toward him.  “What?”

“I said, that’s some real nice fidgeting you’ve got going there.”

She looked down again, frowning.  She was looking at her purse again, and she popped the clasp.  “Yeah, this magnet purse thingy is really good for fidgeting.”

“I like what you’ve done with the shoe, too.”  She  didn’t say anything.

A waitress had been standing only a few feet off.  She approached timidly  and said, “Um, excuse me, but um . . . I need your chair.  Sorry!”

He gave her the stool and watched her walk into the back and use it to get to a high shelf.  Now he was standing, looking down on the shoe and the purse with its magnetic clasp.  He leaned against the wall.  He looked at the floor.  It hadn’t been swept.  He looked at his nice  charcoal slacks.  He turned and walked down the narrow hallway toward the restrooms.   There was a long box on the floor.   He used it as a bench.  She looked up from her purse and gave him a glance.  He thought about a  magazine article he’d read once about a movie’s special effects:  when using  a real cobra, they’d put a piece of Plexiglas between the actor and the snake so nobody could get hurt.

“What are you doing over there?” she asked.

“Why don’t you come over,” he said.  She came over and sat down.  It was cramped on the box but they  weren’t touching.  She had one foot up on the box and was looking at her shoe again.  “I need to get new shoes,” she said finally.  “Or wash these.”

“You know, this is a lot like a French comedy,” he said.  “Nothing really happens, we just sit here and fidget look away from each other, and the Americans say, ‘God, how boring’ but the French find it sophisticated.  Or maybe the movie is supposed to be a romance but it just isn’t happening.  They just sit there.”

She looked at him.  “So what do the characters say?” 

“Oh, I guess that would be the irony of it.  You know, that whole play‑within‑a‑play thing.  The guy would be sitting here talking about how it’s just like a movie, and of course everybody sitting in the theater watching it would know it is a movie, and that would be terribly ironic so they’d all  laugh.”

“Yeah, but what would the characters be saying?  What would he say?”

“I already told you.  The guy would be giving a running commentary about this movie it looked like they were in, and the girl, I suppose, would just sit there and fidget.  Unless it became a romance.”

She turned away.  She twisted so far around that he thought she would  slip off the box.  He saw that her shoulders were shaking.  She was crying.   He tried to put his arm around her.  He took her hand.  It was limp.

“It’s okay.  Look, you don’t have to say anything.  Just relax and if you want to talk, I’m right here.  Or you can wait.”

The hostess was looking at them from the end of the hallway.  “Um, your table is ready.”

“Do you want to get it to go?”  She didn’t say anything. “Does it make any difference?”  She just shook her head.  They  followed the hostess to their table.

“Man, these tables are packed in here.  We could just push them together and make a double date with the guys at the next table.”  She didn’t laugh, although she had stopped crying.  It was so loud, the neighboring couple was oblivious.  From two feet away he could have loudly speculated about their sex lives.  His mind wandered.  He remembered a first date he’d had here a couple years ago, with a different girl who hadn’t been here before; after they ordered he said, “The food isn’t very good.  It’s actually pretty lame.”  When she incredulously  asked, “Then why are we here?!” he laughed and said he was joking.  She didn’t laugh and things got increasingly awkward from there.

 “Were you going to say something?” she asked, sniffing.

“What?”

“You looked like you were about to say something.”

“Well, I was just thinking that the last time I came here on a date I got tooled.   I think I won’t come here anymore.”

“So what are you trying to say?” 

“I dunno, I just have this feeling it’s about to happen again.”

She clenched her teeth.  “What is it with you?!  Why can’t you just say  it?  Why can’t you just say, ‘Something’s wrong.  Tell me what it is.’  Why  can’t you just say that?”

“I already did.”

“No you didn’t.  You never said that.”

“I did.  I asked if something was wrong.  I said are you sure?  You kept denying anything was wrong.”

“You ’re not supposed to ask if.  You should have asked what the problem is.”

“All right, then I’m saying it now.  What’s the problem?”

“The problem is last Sunday, at the barbecue.  You totally ignored me.  You said hi to your friends but you didn’t even say hi to me.  It was like I didn’t even  exist.”

“So you’re mad because on Sunday I didn’t say hi to you.”

“No, I mean all of Sunday.  You were being really reckless, and sloppy.   When we ate.  You kept spilling things.  You really embarrassed me.”

“I embarrassed you.  In front of my friends.”

“And then  all week you never even asked me what was wrong.”

“Look.  Monday you wouldn’t come to the phone.  Tuesday you couldn’t come  over.   Wednesday ... I had to study.  Earlier today I kept asking if something was wrong, and you  kept denying it.”

“Yeah, but you just kept pretending nothing had happened.  You ignore me all week and just pretend nothing’s wrong.”  With a gesture she knocked the menus, in their chrome ringed holder, onto the floor.  The holder landed on the foot of the girl at the next table.

“I was supposed to do that.”

“What?” she said, putting the menus back.

“I was supposed to knock those off the table.”

“What do you mean?”

“That’s how it is in the script, isn’t it?”  He shook  his head.  “So that’s the whole problem?  I didn’t say hi and then when I tried to ask what was wrong—”

“You’re supposed to be able to sense it.   Then tell me you know something’s wrong, and then demand to know what it is.” 

“So that’s it, huh.  I just said it wrong.”  He shook his head again.  “And all this time I thought you were pregnant.”

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