Friday, November 28, 2014

`Like the Conduits of an Old Coronation'

Turkey, of course. Stuffing with chorizo and cornbread. Mashed potatoes baked with a sharp cheddar. Piquant corn casserole, green beans, rolls. For dessert, which I never eat, pumpkin pie baked by my daughter-in-law (so I praise the spicy fragrance), served à la mode. For others, wine and beer; seltzer with lemon for me. Give thanks by savoring abundance. No ungrateful talk of calories and cholesterol. 

The old man in V.S. Pritchett’s “Just a Little More” (When My Girl Comes Home, 1961), we’re told, is “short and very fat.” Though he weighs “close to two hundred pounds, his clothes hung loosely on him, for he had once weighed much more.” A widower, he is dining with the family of his son, who is fifty-seven. His conversation is seamlessly jumbled, memories merging in fluent succession. He is at once benign, frightened and, rarely, angry. He grows baffled but without alarm, filling in memory-pockets without pause.  He expects to have his way, but passive-aggressively. Pritchett reports: 

“`What a lovely piece of beef that is! Wonderful. I haven’t seen a joint of beef like that for centuries. A small bit of lamb we might have, but my wife can’t digest it.’ He often forgot that his wife was dead. `And it doesn’t keep. I put it in the larder and I forget and it goes.’ His big face suddenly crinkled like an apple, with disgust.” 

With the interruption in dialogue – “He often forgot that his wife was dead.” – we forgive the old man his self-centeredness and modest mendacity. He has old person’s fixation on food – as sustenance , as dwindling source of pleasure, as diversion and excuse for conversation. He is growing childlike: 

“His son passed him a plate. The old man hesitated not knowing whether to pass it on and not wanting to. ``If this is for me, don’t give me anymore,’ he said. `I hardly eat anything nowadays. If I could have just a little fat…’ Relieved, he kept the plate.” 

His greed, his moderated gluttony, never offends. We would gladly feed him, never begrudging seconds and thirds. At the end of the story, the son passes his father a cup of coffee: 

“`Is there a lot of sugar in it? Thank you,’ the old man said. He gave it a stir, took a sip, and then held the cup out. `I think I’ll have a couple of spoonfuls more.’” 

In a letter he wrote to his friend Thomas Manning on this date, Nov. 28, in 1800, Charles Lamb, a man who loved his food and drink, says: 

“The earth, and sea, and sky (when all is said) is but as a house to dwell in. If the inmates be courteous, and good liquors flow like the conduits at an old coronation; if they can talk sensibly and feel properly; I have no need to stand staring upon the gilded looking-glass (that strained my friend’s purse-strings in the purchase), nor his five-shilling print over the mantelpiece of old Nabbs the carrier (which only betrays his false taste). Just as important to me (in a sense) is all the furniture of my world—eye-pampering, but satisfies no heart.”

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