Fiction by Glen Pourciau

      We were on vacation in England, trying to have a good time, assortment
of woes, won’t go into it.  Except for this, because this is what she remembers.
      The hotel we’d stopped into had a main house with a reception area, a
restaurant, and some rooms.  It also had a row of cottages along the driveway to
the main house, and we were staying in one of the cottages.  We decided to eat
at the restaurant after our day of sightseeing, tired of driving, tired of trying to
find whatever we were trying to find, who remembers what.  The meal isn’t
important either, one of many, but what happened after the meal is the thing.  I
asked for the check and the waiter asked me if I wanted to sign it to the room.  
I said sure, and he brought me a slip to sign.  “All I need is your signature, sir,”
he said.  Easy enough, long day, go back to our room and get in bed.
      But as we settled into the bed, getting comfortable, my wife asked how
much the dinner cost.  She often asks me this, still does, and I’m always ready
with the amount.  “That sounds high to me,” she said, another thing she often
says.  “What did we have?”  I’m used to it, so I try to remember the prices of
everything we order.  I rattled off the prices, though I wasn’t sure of the exact
amount on a couple of things.  We added it up, but we couldn’t make it come
out to what we paid.  “Maybe it’s some kind of tax,” my wife said.  “You’d
better ask for a look at the dinner tab tomorrow when you check out.”
      In the morning I went to the reception desk and told the manager I was
ready to check out.  He went through his bill-preparation rigmarole, and while
he did that I asked him to see a copy of our restaurant tab.  He flipped through
some papers and came up with it, and looking it over I saw that we’d been
charged for a glazed lemon tart that I was sure we hadn’t ordered.  Neither of
us had eaten dessert, and as we lay in bed adding up our bill we’d gone over
everything we’d had.  So I pointed to the receipt where it said glazed lemon
tart and told the manager we hadn’t ordered it.  
      He was a slender man, shirt and tie, thinning red hair combed straight
forward, and he tensed as I pointed at the words “glazed lemon tart.”
      “My staff doesn’t cheat,” he said, puffing up his chest.
      “I’m not saying they cheated.  It’s just a mistake.  I’d like you to take it
off our bill.”
      But he refused to take it off and he was furious that I’d asked him to.  I
said that I would pay for everything but the lemon tart, but he would not
present any bill but the one he’d already given me.  I asked him to call the
restaurant and ask if anyone there could confirm that we hadn’t ordered a
lemon tart.  He said that the staff in the morning was different than the staff in
the evening.
      “In any case,” he said, “if the bill says you had a lemon tart, you had a
lemon tart.”
      His face was redder than his hair.  His teeth were gritted and he breathed
heavily through his nose.  I stared at the guy, wondering what to do next.  If I
refused to pay, what would he do?  Would he call the police?  I signed the bill.
      My wife was ready for me when I got back to the cottage.
      “Did you check the restaurant bill?”
      “I checked it.  It said we had a lemon tart.”
      “We didn’t have a lemon tart.”
      “I know.”
      “Did you tell him?”
      “I told him, but he wouldn’t change it.”
      “You mean you paid for it?  We didn’t order it.  Why did you pay for it?”
      “He wouldn’t take it off.”
      “What did you say?”
      “I said it was a mistake.  We didn’t have a lemon tart.”
      “You should have had more backbone.  Give me the bill.”
      She didn’t wait for me to give it to her.  She grabbed it out of my hand
and went straight out the door.  I wondered if I should follow her in case she
needed calming down.
      I sat on the bed and waited, and ten minutes later she came back, huffing.
      “I yelled at him,” she said.  “He turned purple and I think he was ready
to sock me.  I told him we did not have a lemon tart.  I said it right up his nose.  
He said his staff doesn’t cheat.”
      “That’s exactly what he told me.”
      “You shouldn’t have paid for it.”
      “You couldn’t get him to take it off either.”
      “But you’d already paid.  He had the signature.”
      “Let’s just move on.  Let’s get back on the road and go about our
      “People can’t force you to pay for things.  From now on, look at the bill
before you sign.”
      She couldn’t settle down and she couldn’t stand the sight of me either.  
I’d created a situation she hated being in.
      Ten years later, we were in the restaurant of an expensive hotel we stayed
in for our twentieth anniversary, the kind of restaurant and hotel we’d only go
to on a special occasion.  We were at the end of our meal, our empty plates had
been cleared, and the waiter had brought us dessert menus.  I couldn’t have
possibly eaten a dessert, but out of curiosity I opened the menu for a look and
saw right away that the first item on the list was a lemon tart.  For ten years I’d
cringed at the sight of the words “lemon tart” and worried that the words could
be a bad omen.  Since that vacation, neither of us had ever ordered a lemon
tart, and the words “lemon tart” had never crossed our lips.  But I knew that my
wife must have seen the lemon tart on the menu, and the menu’s description of
the lemon tart used the word “glazed,” something I imagined my wife must also
have noticed.
      When the waiter approached and asked if we wanted dessert we both
said no, and I asked for the check.
      “Now be sure to check the bill this time,” my wife said after the waiter left.  
“And don’t sign it to the room.”
      Already the words “glazed lemon tart” were on my mind, and I didn’t like
the sound of “this time” and “don’t sign it to the room.”  Nothing unusual for her
to remind me to check the bill, but the addition of “this time” struck me.  I
decided to wait before I said anything, anniversary, nice meal, don’t blow it
out of proportion, maybe wait a day or two and decide then if I want to bring
it up.
      The waiter brought the folder with the bill, and I read it over and then
said each item out loud.  She asked how much we were charged for the salad,
I told her, the entrees, I told her.  I got the waiter’s attention and gave him the
credit card.  Luckily no backbone on the menu, I said to myself.
      On the way up in the elevator, my wife noticed that I was quiet.  She
asked if I liked the meal.  I tried to sound happy, but when we got back to our
room she asked what was wrong.
      “Don’t I always check the bill?”
      “Sometimes you barely look at it.”
      “I check the items and the prices.”
      “I remind you to.”
      “You said ‘this time.’  Why did you say that?”
      “It was a big tab and I wanted you to check it closely this time.”
      “And the thing about not signing it to the room?”
      “I thought it would be easier to check the final bill tomorrow if there
wasn’t a long list of charges on it.”
      “Do you want to be the one who checks the bills and signs them?”
      “You want to be involved in the process.  I thought you might prefer to
use your own eyes and hands.”
      “So what’s your problem?”
      “Did you see the lemon tart on the menu?”
      “I saw it.”
      “Is that why you told me to check the bill ‘this time’?”
      “I wasn’t thinking of the other lemon tart.  Is that what you think?”
      “You know exactly what I’m talking about, so maybe you were
thinking of it.”
      “I remember the other lemon tart, but this is a different bill and a different
lemon tart.”
      “Just stop rubbing it in.”
      “I’m not rubbing anything in.”
      “It’s been ten years and I’m tired of paying for that dessert.”
      “You did pay for it, even though we didn’t order it.  But you’ve only
paid for it once.”
      “That’s what I’m talking about.”
      “What is?”
      “It still bothers you that I paid for the lemon tart.”
      “It does bother me.  We didn’t eat a lemon tart.”
      “You still remember looking at the red hair up the manager’s nose,
don’t you?”
      “I do.  What about it?”
      “You should order a lemon tart, just to teach me a lesson, just to make
me watch you eat it.”
      “You’re the one who brought it up.”
      “You brought it up.”
      “I’m ready to change the subject, if that’s what you want.”
      I didn’t turn down the offer, but the subject didn’t change.  We went to
bed, not touching or speaking, both of us lying awake.  I waited for her to
remind me to look over the bill when I checked out in the morning.           


Glen Pourciau’s collection of stories, Invite, won the 2008 Iowa Short Fiction
Award and was published by the University of Iowa Press.  His stories have
been published by the
Antioch Review, Epoch, failbetter, Mississippi Review,
New England Review, New Orleans Review, The Paris Review, TriQuarterly,
and other magazines.

On “Backbone”:   
This story originated with an innkeeper in England who refused to take
a lemon tart that we did not order off our bill at checkout.  With the
exception of a few details, the rest of the story is made up.

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Apple Valley Review:
A Journal of
Contemporary Literature

ISSN 1931-3888

Volume 6, Number 1
(Spring 2011)

Copyright © 2011
by Leah Browning, Editor.

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