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Authors: Harry Cipriani

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BOOK: Heloise and Bellinis
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Harry Cipriani, the owner of Harry’s Bar in Beirut, woke up about four in the morning. He was covered in perspiration and breathing heavily: A horrible dream had been tormenting him for an hour. The main character in his nightmare was Raspetti, the awful food critic who was the darling of the upwardly mobile classes.

Harry’s dream was that the
Times’
Bryan Miller was having dinner and shouting across the room as he waved an enormous cockroach he said he found in his fish soup. Raspetti and four
Michelin Guide
inspectors were at the next table, and when they saw what was happening they burst out laughing. Several customers got up and walked out in disgust. And Harry, immobilized by shame, was stammering meaningless phrases.

Fortunately, he woke up at that point. His pasty mouth immediately reminded him of the previous night’s menu: beef stew and lyonnaise potatoes. And the bottle and a half of cabernet he had drunk was still gurgling in his stomach. He got up for a drink of water and to slow his heartbeat. His heart continued to pound even after he woke up from the nightmare.

He couldn’t get back to sleep, so at six o’clock he went out for the morning papers. By seven o’clock he had already downed five cups of coffee and was beginning to feel better, but he knew his day was ruined. He waited until the cleaning people came at seven-thirty and then began to go over the previous day’s receipts. Business was good. The Beirut bar was probably the most profitable after the ones in Venice and New York. The odd war that had been going on for years brought a great many people to Beirut—newspapermen, curiosity seekers, gunrunners, and a host of tourists as well. They crossed the Atlantic on War-Express charter flights for the excitement of experiencing a bombing. The main thrill of the tour was that you could buy the return ticket only in Beirut a few minutes before the return flight. There was deathly suspense in the air until the very last moment. And this last-ditch atmosphere substantially increased people’s willingness to spend. People who had money were happy to spend it all—who knows, they might die at any moment. People who didn’t have any money cheerfully used up all their credit on the assumption that death would cancel all debts. So the cash register rang and the lOUs mounted rapidly at Harry’s Bar. Harry was not too worried about the lOUs: his sister Karmel was a fine lawyer, and her specialty was bad-debt collection.

The doors of Harry’s Bar opened about ten o’clock in the morning. There were several different phases of a day at Harry’s. Kitchen activity was the main thing in the morning. The dining room was often empty then, and it was normal to hear the sounds of pots and pans and the rapid remarks the cooks exchanged as they got things ready for the day A customer wandered in from time to time. At that hour they usually ordered coffee or orange juice.

About eleven o’clock that particular morning—and it wasn’t the first time—-a tour leader opened both doors to show the dining room to a couple of dozen men and women who were visiting sanctuaries of all the religions. Harry’s Bar was one of them. More than once Harry had thought of installing a holy-wine fount by the door so that these pilgrims could dip their fingers and make the sign of the cross.

The regular customers usually turned up at eleven-thirty; they were the ones who boasted that they had attended the opening eight years before. A table was set aside for them every day Harry referred to them as the senators. They were not people whose presence attracted attention, but you noticed at once if they weren’t there. As the day went on, the small room, fifteen by thirty feet in all, began to take on a life of its own. This may have been the inmost secret of Harry’s Bar. It was the human spirit that dominated the place, but within the boundaries Harry laid down. They were the boundaries of civility, which had been passed down to Harry by his father, who had learned them from his grandfather, who in turn had tried to grasp everything his great-grandfather taught him.

Waves of feeling constantly rolled across the room and met without colliding, because they arose from the heart of what was best in people. Harry perceived the leitmotiv of this equilibrium as the enduring sound of a balanced and well-tempered harmony

If anyone or anything upset this harmony, Harry intervened at once. It wasn’t always easy, but things always got straightened out in the end. The life force came from everywhere: from the kitchen, where the cooks were under constant pressure; from the bar, where the waiters were attentive but relaxed in serving the customers; and from the reassuring presence of Harry himself, who shared their life from morning to night.

That day, there was still almost no one there at noon, when General Custer walked into the bar with George, Heloise, and Suzy

As usual Harry had accepted far more reservations than there were tables. He always did. Not for lucre, but just because he hated to say no. He found it an intolerable discourtesy to refuse someone a table.

The general walked in first, and Harry greeted him with the blend of natural courtesy and affection he would have shown a relative.

‘‘Harry, have you got a table?” Custer asked.

‘‘Take this one.” Harry led him to the left corner table, the best table in the house. Harry had already promised it to three different parties that morning on the telephone.

“Hello, Private Smith.” Harry turned to Heloise. “Hello, madam. And how are you?” he asked Suzy. Without another word Harry brought them four Bel-linis. This was the time of the year, August, when the peaches had a marvelous pink color and the Bellini was at its peak.

Whether it was thirst, the refreshing cool taste of the drink, or the very delicate fruit flavor that sweetly attenuated the tartness of the champagne, the fact remains that anyone with an unencumbered soul would have drunk Bellinis by the dozen,

A few minutes later other people began to arrive. Some of them were important people, and some of them were less important, but they all had one purpose in mind: to go to Harry’s Bar and see Harry The level of background noise gradually increased, but it was never unbearable, and you could always hear your companions, even when speaking softly

Almost the only thing the general talked about was the drinks and Harry

After half an hour, Suzy got up. “Shall we powder our noses?” she asked Heloise.

As soon as the two men were alone, Custer turned to George. “You goddam son of a bitch, where the hell were you?”

“Uh,” replied George, “with her.” and he nodded at Heloise’s vacant chair.

“But where?” Custer exclaimed.

“In a hotel.” George lied,

“In a goddam hotel! You spent two weeks in a goddam hotel,” Custer asked, “without even leaving the goddam room?”

“Yes.”

“With her?” This time Custer nodded at Heloise’s chair.

“Yes, sir.”

“For the glory and freedom of the United States of America! That’s the first time I’ve heard that one in all these years. In a hotel room for two weeks! Did you, by any chance, lose the key?”

“Uh, well, I didn’t remember where I’d put it.” George smiled.

“Listen,” Custer said, “before the ladies come back, I’ve got something to say to you. It will be a lot better for you if this business remains a totally personal goddam fact between us. 1 mean between you, me, and that goddam Ryland. It will be much better for you, for me, for goddam Ryland, and for the United States of America! Got that?”

“Yes sir, General.”

‘And stop saying ‘General’ all the time. You can call me the stupid general in command of the stupidest division of the great US Army!” Custer spoke in a low voice, but his words came out knife sharp in short bursts, and his face got redder and redder.

The two women reappeared in the doorway across the room. Custer gave George a hearty pat on the back and exclaimed, “I’m delighted to be here with our hero!

Harry, four more Bellinis! Hi there, Arafat!” He waved at Arafat Jr., who was sitting two tables away.

Harry brought a tablecloth with the Bellinis and spread it out before them. “The kidney is marvelous today, General. You might like them sliced and sau-téed, and maybe some green asparagus with oil and vinegar.”

“That sounds great, Harry.” Custer said. He turned to the others. ‘And you?”

“That would be fine,” said Heloise.

“Me too,” said Suzy

“And George just loves kidneys, don’t you, George?” Custer asked.

“Yes sir.”

‘All right, Harry, kidney for four and a bottle of cabernet, your stock, please.”

“Very well, General.” Harry said and finished setting the table.

END OF CHAPTER ELEVEN

INTERMEZZO
BETWEEN CHAPTERS ELEVEN AND TWELVE

Dear Abelard,

I wouldn’t want you to misunderstand what I said the other day, that if Heloise had insisted on paying her share of the bill the first time they went to Harry’s Bar, she and George would never have had a love affair. The reason you do not understand me is that you are always determined at any cost to play the protector of the oppressed and exploited. As if the immanent order of things assigned women to that category. I am just trying to open your eyes.

What I am trying to tell you is this: Remember the other day, when you were looking under your girlfriend’s skirt to check the bodywork on her contraption, and with the most innocent air in the world she asked you to lend her three million lire? At that moment, when things couldn’t have been more delightful, the woman who is now your ex-fiancée was simply asking what she considered her due after all this time. I.e., you cannot expect to be offered the use of her contraption for fifteen years without once giving the owner the slightest hope of one day walking her down the aisle. What’s more, you were too insensitive at the time to notice that she tactfully asked you for a loan, not a gift, f am talking about the three million lire. A loan that she obviously would have been willing to repay you after the wedding, so to speak. You are always criticizing me and setting yourself up as the defender of the weak, but you want everything, and gratis, to boot. You are the real exploiter of women. You can hardly wait to call her a whore, when all she wanted was what you owed her.

Sure, three million lire might seem too much for once around the block, but it. is almost nothing when you think of all the times she has let you have a good look in all these years. Let me give you some practical advice in case you should be in that sort of situation again. And I have no doubt that you will, since you are so congenitally cheap. There are proven methods for getting out of situations like that. At least temporarily.

Instead of dropping everything and slamming the door behind you, which is what you did (without even finishing what you were up to, by the way, which 1 would have thought the best thing to do at the time), you might at least have stalled for time. You could have said that you had to go through your accountant to make that kind of loan. You would have made a marvelous impression, and she wouldn’t have known you don’t have three million lire to your name or, for that matter, that you’ve never even seen three million lire at one time. So, when you’re in that situation again, remember the accountant dodge. That’s what really rich people do. They never have money on them. All their money is in the company. They almost never have liquid assets. (Anyone with a million lire in his pocket must surely be just over the poverty line.) Even though you wouldn’t pass for being really rich, you could carry a checkbook—but of course it’s the company account, and you can’t use that either without bona fide receipts.

I remember a famous lawyer from Turin who came to Harry’s Bar in Venice for lunch one day. Everyone thought he must be extremely rich, but actually all he had at his personal disposal was a small amount every now and then. After lunching with a lady, he got up from the table and took a handkerchief and a hundred-dollar bill from his pocket. He gave the waiter the hundred dollars and walked out of the place, and everyone wondered whether the hundred dollars was meant to pay for lunch or if it was a tip for the waiter.

Of course nobody dared to ask him. The tab was more than a hundred dollars—our prices are rather high, as you know. So the waiter kept his hundred-dollar tip, and that tab still sits among pending bills that will never be paid.

I have another friend who used to slip a neatly folded hundred-dollar bill between the thigh and garter belt of a very close friend every time she let him use her contraption. One day, after many years, this friend did not have the usual hundred-dollar bill, so he slipped a hundred-thousand-lire note between her thigh and garter belt. He had checked the exchange rate that morning on the financial page, and the note was worth exactly one hundred dollars.

His girlfriend couldn’t have been more offended. The way my friend and I explained it was that lire were considered as payment, while dollars were a gift. It’s as if to say that if this friend of mine and his girlfriend had been in America, it would have been perfectly logical for him to slip a hundred-thousand-lire note between her thigh and garter belt, but it would have been quite improper to use dollars in that situation.

Let me give you some advice. Wherever you are in the world, make sure you always have a certain amount of currency from another country. It will come in handy as a welcome gift on any occasion.

END OF THE INTERMEZZO BETWEEN CHAPTERS ELEVEN AND TWELVE

CHAPTER TWELVE
In which General Custer is rather drunk by the end of lunch at Harry’s Bar
.

Meanwhile, an American couple in their fifties sat down at the next table. He was wearing a blue Lacoste shirt and loud tartan trousers and had a heavy gold bracelet on his wrist. Her Kewpie-doll face was hidden under a very broad-brimmed white hat.

The man smiled at Harry and asked, “Where’s Harry?”

“I’m Harry.” Harry replied.

Harry’s face remained expressionless, and that made the man laugh all the harder. “Oh,” he said, “that’s all right, I believe you.”

“What can 1 get you?” Harry asked. “Would you like a Bellini?”

“Whafs a Bellini?”

“Peach nectar and champagne.”

BOOK: Heloise and Bellinis
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