INFLATING A DOG
(The Story of Ella’s Lunch Launch)
“[A] bittersweet tale of adolescence recollected in tranquility. . . . Glorious stuff.”
Joan Roig i Soler, Sitges Study (circa 1896, detail)
“Raucous, wise, and great fun, this is simply not to be missed.”
Nancy Pearl, Booklist
“The reader feels flattered and privileged to be invited to join Kraft’s remarkable, ongoing dance of time and memory.”
Richard Gehr, Newsday
About a month after Dudley Beaker’s death, his wife, Eliza, telephoned me and said that she would like to see me. She had, she said, a proposal that she would like me to consider.
A proposal? A proposition? I was on my bicycle in a minute. Riding southward, I speculated about the proposal Eliza intended to make. I was a thirteen-year-old boy, so I fervently hoped that the proposal would have something to do with sex. It seemed not impossible to me that Eliza might want me to provide her with a sexual outlet now that Dudley was gone. She would propose a sophisticated and civilized arrangement. I would assure her that I would be more than happy to comply, that I would gladly provide her with any sexual services that she cared to teach me to provide.
She interviewed me in the living room. It was, as I recall, early afternoon. She was wearing something cream colored, silk, possibly thin enough for me to make out the outlines of her underwear, but I can’t be certain about that, because I find that when I bring the women of my past to mind, their clothing has become far finer and sheerer in memory than it ever was in fact, and I can see lovely bits of them now that I know I never saw then.
She was drinking a cocktail. I’m sure of that.
“Do you want anything?” she asked.
At thirteen? I wanted everything.
“Some lemonade or something?”
“Well—I’ll have whatever you’re having.”
She raised her eyebrows, gave a little laugh, and got up. She took a cocktail glass from a cabinet, and she filled it from a shaker on a sideboard.
“This will be mostly water,” she said, “but you can tell your friends that you spent the afternoon drinking martinis with a merry widow.”
I tried it. It seemed strong to me. “Mmm, delicious,” I said.
“Let me explain what I have in mind,” she said.
“Okay,” I said, trying not to seem too eager.
She sighed and lit a cigarette.
“I’m going abroad for a few weeks,” she said, shaking the match out, dropping it into an ashtray, removing the cigarette from her mouth, exhaling. “Overseas. To Europe.”
“Oh.” This was a surprise. Europe. She wanted me to join her for an extended stay in Europe. Of course. She understood that I had always been attracted to her, and she had developed an attraction for me, but Babbington was no place to carry on a liaison with a boy considerably less than half her age. On the other hand, from what I’d heard Europe was just the place. This would be a great opportunity for me. I would learn a lot from Europe and from Eliza. I would be richer for the experience. I would have stories to tell when I returned. I would stand out from all the Babbington boys who had never traveled through Europe with Eliza. Patti Fiorenza would notice my European patina, my worldly air, savvy and cynical demeanor, my je ne sais quoi. It would be wonderful.
She knocked the ash from her cigarette. She said, “Peter, I want to offer you a job.”
“What is it?” I asked. Translator seemed a possibility, since I had started taking French. I didn’t have much of a vocabulary yet; I’d have to get to work.
“I’d like you to take care of this house for a while,” she said. I felt a great disappointment, as you might expect. Arrivederci, Roma. So long to Germany. Farewell to France.
“Are you interested?”
“I’m not sure,” I said, honestly. It wasn’t nearly as attractive an offer as traveling through Europe, kissing and cuddling our way across the Continent in first-class railway compartments.
“Well, let’s discuss the duties and responsibilities and the remuneration.”
I liked “remuneration.” It sounded much classier than “pay,” and it sounded like more money.
“Uh-huh,” I said.
“Peter,” she said, “what’s happened to you?”
“Happened to me?”
“You don’t seem to have anything to say. You’ve become awkward and hesitant, as if you were dull-witted, but I know you’re not a dull boy. You—ahhhh—I see.”
“You’ve reached the awkward age, haven’t you?”
“I guess so,” I said. It was true. I often seemed to get in my own way. I sometimes tripped over my own feet as if some prankster had tied my shoes together, and my thoughts sometimes tripped over one another and tied my tongue.
“Well,” she said with a knowing smile, “it doesn’t last forever.” She got up, keeping her glass, and said, “Come on—let’s walk through the house and I’ll show you what I want you to do.”
My duties as she outlined them wouldn’t be many. I would have to check the house daily, water some plants, dust and vacuum regularly, and keep the lawn mowed and the weeds down.
“The key to the back door is under the mat,” she said. She paused and looked me over. Then she decided to add something.
“Don’t break anything, and don’t do anything that will ruin my reputation.”
“Like what?” I asked.
“You know—no parties, no seducing teenage girls, no plying them with drink, no playing the bachelor playboy just because you have the run of the house.”
She winked at me, and I winked back. All of those things sounded like great ideas to me.
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“A hilarious riff on Don Quixote, on the desire for fame, the need for success, the power of fantasy.”
Barbara Fisher, Boston Globe
THERE WAS AT THAT TIME a vogue for combining everything one might want in a particular area of interest or endeavor into “one handy package,” and the cult of miniaturization had already begun. Devotees of the backyard barbecue, for example, instead of buying separate tongs, fork, spatula, and similar implements could instead buy the Hand-e-Que, which combined tongs, fork, spatula, spoon, skewer, and salt and pepper shakers in one handy package. In the supermarket (actually, at that time, the grocery store) one could buy Box o’ Supper, a box that held a bag of macaroni, a can of cheese sauce, a can of peas, a can of brown bread, a small package of cookies, a couple of paper napkins, and a short stack of antacid tablets. In cynics, Diogenes would have been everything one could have wanted in one handy package. In sexpots, it would have been Patti Fiorenza.
I was obsessed with Patti. She was a year older than I, which meant that she was fourteen. She had many admirable qualities. I might mention her pretty face, her quick mind, her sparkling personality, her winning smile, or the cooing voice in which she sang backup for the Bay Tones, the Four Plays, the Half Shafts, the Glide Tones, and the Love Notes.
Patti possessed, to a degree unmatched in the experience of Babbingtonians until that time, a quality that was then called “sex appeal.” She had an amazing little body, tiny but breathtaking. That tiny body was bursting with the promise of sexual gratification. From the long view of fifty-six, I see that Patti was the walking, talking embodiment of a hoary old fantasy, the child-woman, sexually a woman, but in so many other ways still a child, but what I remember from that time was the impression I had that under the right conditions I could pick her up and put her in my pocket, hide her in a shoe box under my bed and take her out and play with her under the covers at night.
Imagine a day in the spring, that first warm and brilliant day that takes everyone by surprise. Let’s say that, after school, Patti decides to take a walk downtown to get a milk shake. She sits at the counter in the malt shop and drinks a chocolate shake.
Old Eben Flood, just a week shy of eighty-six, finds that he has developed an almost uncontrollable urge to lick the chocolate from Patti’s lower lip, and to keep himself from licking her he begins whistling “The Happy Wanderer.”
Mrs. Dorothy Inskip, a respectable matron, president of the Ladies’ Village Improvement Society, finds that she can’t stop staring at the beautiful buttocks of this girl so pertly perched on a counter stool. To prevent herself from giving in to a desire to touch what she admires, she rushes from the shop; outside, she collides with Harrison Barker, the president of the First National Bank of Babbington, an old flame, a flame that hasn’t flickered since she was Patti’s age, but a flame rekindled on the spot, a flame that will bring to the seven quiet and wrinkled years that Harry and Dotty still have ahead of them a warmth greater and more perdurable than either of them could possibly have imagined when first that flame was lit.
When Patti pays the soda jerk, young Frederick Lawson Stillwell, his hand shakes, and his lips move in a silent prayer that he manage somehow not to surrender to the vast catalogue of impure thoughts inspired by the salacious way she chews her gum, that he not be led into temptation by the wanton way her little hips swing, and that he not be made to turn from the straight path and follow her out the door and wherever on earth she might choose to lead him. By dropping to his knees as soon as she’s out the door he manages to keep himself from following her, but he discovers in another minute to his horror that he’s praying that she’ll come back, so to purge himself of this devilish perversion he whips out the pocket-size discipline he carries to keep impure thoughts at bay and spends a few satisfying moments mortifying his flagitious flesh. Years later, when he has finally given up trying to fight the fire that burns within him, he will found the Little Church of Perpetual Passion at the southernmost end of Bolotomy Road, and on “Flagellation Fridays,” his disciples will join him in flailing at themselves and one another.
Patti, meanwhile, has left the shop and stands in the sunlight at the corner of Bolotomy and Main. It’s such a nice day! Instead of heading directly for home as she had intended, she spends the rest of the afternoon strolling willy-nilly, wherever fancy takes her, here and there, all over our little town. By nightfall, the town can scarcely think of anything but her. We are all drunk on Patti Fiorenza. Some of us are leaning against our porch posts, smoking, yearning for her, others lying in our bedrooms, sweating, with Patti on our minds and our hands between our legs.
As the night comes on, all Babbington falls into one great orgy of desire for her. All over town, we pet and paw one another, or toy with ourselves, while visions of Patti dance in our heads. We take our pleasure from her, and in our collective fantasy we enjoy her every which way that night, every one of us who saw her walk by, the men and the women, the old and the young, the fit and the feeble, all of us pushing and pulling and thrusting and slipping and sliding our way toward a rippling wave of pleasure that shudders through us all, trembles from one end of town to the other, a shudder strong enough for Patti to feel it at home, in her bed, where she lies alone, and mistakes the tremor of our pleasure for her own, for she has succumbed to her own sweet charms. She soughs, and stretches, and sleeps, and dreams. So, at last, do we, and we dream of her, every sort of sexual pleasure in one handy package.
“Provocative, poignant and deeply satisfying . . . especially in lyrical passages that epitomize the secret dreams and yearnings of a soul in the making, a fool for beauty.”
Frederic Koeppel, Memphis Commercial Appeal
“Fascinating and sophisticated.”
Jennifer Reese, The New York Times Book Review
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“A cheeky, amusing look at the nature of the entrepreneurial dream. Another memorable installment in [Kraft’s] innovative series.”
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“The best description of sex appeal anywhere, ever.”
Peter Jon Shuler