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Carlo Reinhart’s life has taken many turns. From his idealistic youth in Crazy in Berlin, to his entrance into adulthood in Reinhart in Love, through his uneasy tumble into middle age in Vital Parts, Reinhart has never lost his philosophical and even-minded disposition. Reinhart’s Women finds Reinhart divorced and living with his daughter, Winona, a successful model. His newest hobby is cooking, and he has become surprisingly accomplished for an amateur. But when he asks a woman over for a homemade lunch, Reinhart’s idyll is shattered. Adventures and misadventures conspire to put his nascent cooking skills to the test—and turn him into a postmodern celebrity. With Reinhart, Berger has created one of the great comic characters of the twentieth century—a man who beautifully represents, and parodies, his moment. This ebook features an illustrated biography of Thomas Berger including rare images and never-before-seen documents from the author’s personal collection.
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By Thomas Berger
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1981 Thomas Berger
All rights reserved.
Reinhart 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 lardons 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 married. 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 am 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 is 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 not 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 well," Winona had said in a solemn, even owlish style, "but what you've done great 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 that 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 might 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."
Reinhart shook his head. "But you had a New York offer. And if you had gone, you would be famous from coast to coast." His conscience was clean: he had not stood in her way. Winona really had no ambition for spectacular success and little attraction to any way of life that could be called glamorous.
She started away from the kitchen, murmuring, and then she turned and stepped back. "Dad, I must say you have not said much about Grace. What's she like? How does she strike you, really?"
Reinhart cocked an eye at his simmering strips of bacon. He turned to Winona. "I guess you're right. I haven't told you much about Grace—for any number of reasons. Even after ten years away from your mother I still feel funny speaking of other women in front of you. But apart from that—" The subject was important to Reinhart, but he could not fail in his responsibility to the meal: again he tossed the mushrooms in their lemon-juice bath. "In addition," he resumed, "I have all my life generally had difficulty in telling one female person anything about another. Whether that's my own foible, or—"
Reinhart cleared his throat. The possibility that he might be turning into a garrulous old bore suddenly suggested itself to him: it was not a simple matter to identify oneself with the tedious sort of old-timer one remembered from one's own youth. Consciousness, however far back it can be remembered, always seems about the same. It is an effortless thing to recall, across half a century, one's intent to become a cowboy when one grows up.
"Sorry, dear. I'll make it snappy. To begin with, Grace, while not being quite as young as you, is even further from being as old as I. That is, she is not old enough to be your biological mother, whereas I suppose I could, technically speaking, have been her father, if just barely: she is forty." He frowned in thought. "She's a nice-looking woman, but what really matters is she's smart. I don't mean to imply that women aren't usually, but Grace has made a success in a man's world."
He closed one eye briefly and laughed. "First time we met I took her for a housewife, and a fairly dowdy and out-of-date one at that. She was wearing a cardigan and the kind of shoes that years ago were called 'sensible.' In fact, she was generally reminiscent of an earlier era, which is why I noticed her in the first place. I've found myself doing that sort of thing more and more. I suppose it's a sign of growing senility!"
Winona suddenly excused herself and left the kitchen. But when Reinhart had finished blanching the bacon she was back. She now wore the third outfit he had seen within a quarter hour: a long, long skirt, a puffy sort of blouse, and a kind of bandanna tied around her forehead. He liked this ensemble least of all: it was rather too mannered for his taste, but of course he said something flattering.
Winona thanked him. "But you weren't finished talking about Grace."
He raised his eyebrows. "Grace, you see, is all wool, no nonsense. Fact is, it was she who first asked me out. And why not? There we were, in front of the Mexican packaged foods—that's where we met, in the supermarket, as I mentioned earlier. She turned to me, in that cardigan and those sensible shoes. 'Say,' she said, 'do you really buy any of this stuff?' She asked it so aggressively that I thought she might be hostile to it herself. 'Not much,' says I. 'I don't cook in any Hispanic cuisine, though mind you I've nothing against any. I've eaten a taco or two in my time, and once, in that Mexican restaurant in the Wulsin Building downtown, I ate a chicken mole, which was fascinating with its peppery chocolate sauce, but—'
"'I am really interested only in the Pancho Villa line,' she said, and she pointed at the cans bearing that label, which carry a picture of a Mexican bandit or general, Villa himself I suppose, with crossed bandoleers and a saber and two guns. 'I'm one of the guys who distribute that,' she said, 'and what I'm listening for is public reaction. The opinion-testers are more scientific, but I like to get the street-reaction on my own. Now, you look like a normal member of the public. Do you think this picture of a bloodthirsty-looking greaser would encourage you to buy, uh'—she chose a can at random and read the label—'uh, refried beans?'
Excerpted from Reinhart's Women by Thomas Berger. Copyright © 1981 Thomas Berger. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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