Authors: Thomas Berger
To Emma Berger Jewett
and in memory of
Joseph F. Jewett III
EINHART WAS PREPARING BRUNCH
for his daughter and his new girl friend. He and Winona had lived together since his divorce from her mother, ten years before. The friendship with Grace Greenwood was a recent development.
At the moment he was slicing little
from a stack of bacon strips. Grace was not due for another quarter hour. Winona appeared in the doorway to the kitchen.
“Is this O.K., do you think, Daddy?” She turned sveltely in her figured dress of turquoise, green, and blue. With amber eyes and chestnut hair, and a person that was not less than exquisite in any particular, Winona was as lovely a creature as Reinhart had ever seen, and though she was, technically speaking, but half his creation and took her coloring from the maternal side, in spirit she was nothing like her mother. The nice thing about Winona, as one of her admirers had explained to Reinhart, was that though a beauty she seemed to believe herself unattractive. The combination quite devastated this prosperous young lawyer, who had offered her his heart and his considerable goods of life. Among her other suitors had been an up-and-coming, middle-of-the-road politician and a forty-two-year-old department-store executive who professed to be ready to dump his wife and kids for her hand.
Winona’s habitual response to male attentions was first disbelief, then amusement, but with the executive she had been outraged.
“Daddy,” she had said through tears of anger, “he’s
How can a man be so disgusting?”
“It really turns one’s stomach,” said arch-hypocrite Reinhart, an old frequenter of whores extramaritally, but then his wife had been a real bitch at the time—indeed at all times. “Of course there may be extenuating circumstances, Winona. He’s probably not a criminal, but it’s not the worst strategy to consider all men as conscienceless brutes.” That he was here being a traitor to his own sex gave Reinhart no qualms: he could not remember the last time a man had done anything for him, anything, that is, that did not militate to the advantage of the giver.
“What,” Winona asked now, “is Grace’s favorite color?”
Reinhart had finished his neat knifeplay, having transformed a half-pound of slab bacon into an accumulation of little strips measuring half an inch by an inch and a half.
“Favorite color,” he said speculatively. “Now, I don’t mean to offend you, but that would seem a very female question.”
“Daddy,” said Winona, “how could you offend me, since I
female?” She said this with her habitual sweetness, being incapable of irony.
Reinhart always kept a supply of chicken stock in the fridge, but anxious as he was to make the best impression on Grace Greenwood, he had earlier that morning cut up a three-pound bird, immersed the pieces in water to which he had added a sliced carrot, a diced onion, and a quarter teaspoon of dried thyme, brought it to a boil, and simmered it, partially covered, for an hour and a quarter. Then he removed the flesh, putting it aside for another use, and strained the fragrant liquid, which of course was in itself a bouillon. Only half a cup was needed for the Eggs Meurette.
He turned up the gas under a saucepan full of water: the slab bacon had a good strong, smoky flavor that was first-rate with an American breakfast, hen fruit sunny side up and home fries, or with flapjacks (though little pork sausages had the edge here), but eggs poached in red wine and chicken stock, with mushrooms, had a flavor that obviously would be stained by any hint of smoke, nor would the excessive salt in which bacon is cured be welcome.
The point was that Reinhart was about to blanch the bacon—which Winona brought home, for it was she who supported them while he served as housekeeper.
“Daddy, you’re like all men,” his daughter told him now. “You never look at anybody.” She said this in a tone of affectionate reproach.
“Why, of course I do, Winona. But it
more like a woman than a man to notice colors. Whether or not that is based on some biological difference I couldn’t say.”
“Oh, I think it is,” she said with vigor. No unisex theories would be entertained by Winona. Of course Reinhart, at his age, was gratified by his daughter’s failure to be up to date. In truth the two of them saw eye to eye on almost everything, with the notable exception of food.
Winona had been a glutton until the last year or so of her teens, stuffing her then-stout person daily with sufficient carbohydrates to sate the Sumo wrestler she was on her way to resembling. But when she reformed, her efforts were not niggardly. In fact, what she had done was simply to reverse the coin and eat hardly enough to sustain life. The doctor assured Reinhart that her about-face was not abnormal in an American adolescent, and further he suggested that Reinhart himself, who had not then seen his own belt buckle in years, might do worse than follow his daughter’s lead.
It was at this time that Reinhart had really begun to take a serious interest in food, after having gorged on it mindlessly for half a century. But despite his efforts to prepare such delicious meals that small portions exquisitely flavored would fill the role earlier performed by mountainous servings of sweet-and-salty blandness, he could claim no great success with Winona. Nowadays she simply ate almost nothing at all but wheat germ and yoghurt.
True, his leverage of argument was feeble. The slimmer she became, the more robust her health; whereas as a fatty her colds, laid end to end, had embraced the year, and of the common nonlethal complaints of all the popular organs she had evaded few. But the real clincher, unanswerable, was that Winona’s dwindle in girth was accompanied by her gain in height, and by the time she had finished her eighteenth year, which coincided with her completion of the last term of high school, she stood five feet eight and she weighed a hundred twenty, and in no time at all she had become a fashion model and supported her father in a style he had never known! Their apartment, for example, was in a high-rise overlooking the river, five rooms furnished with expensive blond wood and chromium and glass, and Reinhart had a kitchenful of appliances. He supposed that it was in his interest
to feed Winona much. Yet cooking was the only thing in life he had ever done well.
Once he had wryly made that point to Winona herself. Her response, truly unexpected, had sent him behind the closed door of the bathroom: for, despite all the feminist propaganda, Reinhart continued to believe it unmanly to weep before others.
“Maybe it is a thing you’ve done
Winona had said in a solemn, even owlish style, “but what you’ve done
is being my dad.”
Imagine having a daughter like that!
“Darling,” he said now, “whichever color is Grace’s favorite, she’s going to fall in love with you. Now, I know that’s a man’s answer and that you’re still going to worry about how you’re dressed, because even though you’re the leading model in town, you’re female, and that means you’re more anxious about other women than about men when it comes to your attire.”
“I wonder why that is?” Winona asked.
Reinhart placed a dozen and a half of the button mushrooms in a colander and plunged the perforated vessel into a potful of cool water. He lifted it out, dripping, and then plunged it back. He decided to add another half-dozen fungi, did so and rinsed the lot once more, then removed the colander and emptied its burden onto paper towels.
“I suppose it makes sense, all in all,” he said to his daughter. “Persons of the opposite sex look at each other with a totally different kind of interest from what they have when they see their own kind. They measure themselves against their fellows—they’re in competition, aren’t they?”
“Well,” Winona said, moueing, “so are male models with us, I can tell you.”
Reinhart snorted. “But is that the most manly of professions?” In justice it did occur to him that perhaps keeping house for a young woman, when you were not
old, might be seen as a failure of virility—but that the woman was a daughter made, as anyone would agree, a substantive difference.
“Anyway,” he went on, “Grace has seen your pictures in the paper, and of course I’ve told her all about you. She couldn’t be more impressed than she is, you know! You’re a celebrity, Winona.”
“Oh, come on, Dad.” She hung her head, then raised it and chided him: “You are the most awfully unreliable person to ask about anyone’s opinion of me! You always say it’s fantastic. If I believed you, I couldn’t get my hat on.”
Winona was the only truly modest person Reinhart had ever known. He wondered whether it was really for the purpose of being sweet to him that she used so many of his own old-fashioned phrases: she never wore a hat, for example. She was also wont to say something was on the fritz or somebody had gone haywire or took the cake. On the other hand, the once-bygone “nifty” had been resuscitated by the world but was never used by Winona.
“It doesn’t flatter my ego,” said Reinhart, “but I strongly suspect it was because of you that Grace found me at all interesting.”
“Now, Dad!” Winona said. “You’re a fascinating fellow, and also a handsome dog.” She approached him.
“Careful of your clothes, dear,” Reinhart warned, though in fact his striped butcher’s apron was not soiled.
“Well, I’m going to kiss my dad!” Winona cried in mock petulance. “I can always get another dress.” She bussed Reinhart on the cheek. “Listen,” she said, “if I could find a guy who was just like you, I
want to get to know him better. But he still wouldn’t, he couldn’t, know as much about me as you do! So how could I possibly make a life with him?”
Though this sort of expression was habitual with Winona, Reinhart himself was never blasé about it.
“You mustn’t be too discouraged,” he said lamely. “You just haven’t met Mister Right as yet. When you do—and you will—everything will be different. You’ll see.”
Winona grimaced, and it was all Reinhart could do to keep from joining her. The idea of her being associated intimately with some squalid little ape was unbearable to him, if the truth be known; and by definition any male admirer whose affection was requited by her could be so characterized. Reinhart was well aware of his bias. But we cannot in justice be blamed for having our prejudices: all that matters is how they affect our actions. Therefore, secretly gritting his teeth, he invariably praised her gentlemen callers. But could he have done so if she herself had not disparaged them?
She drifted out of the kitchen now, in an abstracted mood. The water was boiling, and Reinhart plunged the little strips of bacon into it. When the boil returned from its brief setback he reduced it to a simmer. The mushrooms were small enough to cook whole, but without at least one flat surface the little buttons could roll on the plate, perhaps even tumble off. The potential mobility of food was to be inhibited. With his big chef’s knife, which often could be put to defter use than a midget paring blade, he halved each button. It was a bit early for this, especially if Grace were to arrive late, and the cut mushrooms would darken unless sprinkled with lemon juice.
While he was squeezing a lemon half Winona returned.
She had changed her attire. Now she wore beige slacks and a shiny black blouse.
“Don’t you think this is better?”
He inspected her with deliberation, then asked her to turn so that he might do the same from the rear perspective. Not that he saw anything with an eye that was at all competent in women’s fashion, but Winona needed someone to turn in front of and to ask for approval. At such times he always felt a little twinge of guilt. A mother was the only proper audience for this sort of performance, as a father was the correct parent before whom to punt or throw a screwball.
She had already chided him today about overpraise. He might be restrained now with profit.
He said almost severely: “I think it strikes just the right note, Winona.” He turned back to his counter top. “Of course, as I always say, dear, I think it’s pretty ironic that I should be rendering a judgment on what our leading model wears.”
“Dad,” said Winona, in her most naive manner, “didn’t I ever tell you that I don’t choose what to wear on a job? Gosh, to all intents and purposes we’re not much different from window dummies, you know. And I’m not ‘leading’ anybody. I just work here in town, not in New York or Chicago or anyplace important.”