Eating French Fries in Austin. Reading about a photographer. Novel excerpt.


An excerpt from the novel, The Lisbon Portfolio:

"...As Henry shuffled back down the whitewashed walls of the narrow, high ceilinged hallway he could smell the odors of cooking coming from somewhere on the floors below.  The tantalizing smells of grilling meats brought back a poignant and very visual memory.  
The day his memory conjured up was a warm, slow, summer saturday.  Henry, his sweet wife of eighteen years, and his five year old son had watched cartoons on the television, worked in the garden and enjoyed the leisure of the hot, bright morning without a schedule.  His son Kip had the idea to go out for hamburgers at lunchtime.  No one had to mention the restaurant, they all knew it would be Hillberts.  The moment came into clear focus.  Henry relived the pleasures of the refreshing air conditioning that blew from two noisy and obsolete window units perched opposite each other on top of either glass entry door to the restaurant.  The ordering counter was a long stained,  construction of white formica, accented throughout  with tiny gold flecks. Atop the counter two old cash registers stood guard.  Run by a congenial hispanic family, all the cooks were Hispanic.  They all dressed in white tee shirts and the red trimmed, white paper, disposable hats most restaurants gave up during the transition from the 1960’s to the 1970’s. 
Opposite the ordering counter was a wall of floor to ceiling windows. A sixteen inch deep ledge ran horizontally across the expanse of the windows creating a quick lunch counter. Every three or four feet yellow and red plastic squeeze bottles held mustard and ketchup. Plastic salt and pepper shakers were distributed across the shelf in no apparent pattern. Swiveling round stools on thick silver poles, bolted to the floor and covered with shiny, yellow plastic cushions, provided seating for sixteen customers.
Henry and his family sat three across at the window counter.  Henry could feel the heat of the hundred degree day radiate through the glass. But the air conditioning was cool across his back and on his bare toes, sticking out from the straps of his worn, leather sandals.  The sunlight cascading through the wall of windows was subdued by a yellow translucent shade that flapped listlessly across the front of the building.  Kip, his son, vibrating with the natural energy and joy of a small child sat between his parents and relished the kinetic nature of the rotating stools. He spun his tiny body from side to side. And the seat swung with him.
They ate “home town” burgers piled high with iceberg lettuce, sliced white onions, tomatoes, pickles and yellow mustard.  French fries were shared out of white paper bags that had been twisted shut by practiced hands, nestled in red and white cardboard containers called “boats.” 
Henry kept an eye on his son.  He was proud of Kip’s lack of fear, loved his clear, uncompromised logic, took great pleasure in the child’s blond curls and the smart gray- blue eyes which already seemed so wise and worldly. Kip lavished ketchup from a plastic red squeeze bottle all over the nearest nest of french fries. His lunch vacillated between ketchup finger-painting and stool spinning; eating was so secondary.  Then he stopped, picked up his oversized, white styrofoam cup with both of his small, perfect hands, pulled the red straw into his mouth and enjoyed his lemonade as only a five year old boy can.  
At that moment he turned and looked up at Henry.  Their eyes met and Henry melted as he saw the look of pride, affection and lack of judgment in Kip’s eyes.  It was one of the quietest, most powerful moments of sheer joy Henry White had experienced in his forty six years. 
He pulled a film camera up to his eye from it’s resting spot on the end of a nylon strap, dangling over his left shoulder.  He tried to capture the warmth of the day.  The honesty of the little neighborhood burger joint. The promise and the power of a five year old boy.  And the unyielding support of a wife with a surplus of compassion for his weaknesses and failures.  This moment from his recent memory was so strong for Henry that it was akin to watching a snippet from a movie.  But instead of just sight and sound the memory captured all the pleasures of the warmth and the cool currents swirling together in the noisy restaurant.  The voluptuous smell built from decades of deep fat frying potatoes.  The feel of the glossy plastic seat under his bottom and the air circulating through the old sandals strapped to his feet.  But most of all he could feel the love that flowed through his heart and his chest when he looked into the eyes of the boy.  

Now the memory started to torment him because Henry knew it would be at least a week before he could sink his teeth into a burger at Hillberts.  He was already constructing it in his mind.  It would be a celebratory  burger with two hot, dripping patties, all the usual condiments and a generous mosaic of hot jalapeno pepper slices.


Wolfgang Lonien said...

Seen it while reading it, like many others as well. Love that book.

Rory said...

Good novel that - I enjoyed it!

ChazL said...

That was actually one of my favorite vignettes from the book. Well written and truly felt.