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My Dinner At Andre's

by Richard Harter

The bar between the worlds is a popular setting in tales of fantasy and science fiction. It is a meeting place for improbable customers, a venue for improbable tales. The players may be aliens, people from fiction, people from history, or just people with strange tales to tell. It is a meeting place for people that would never meet, a stage for relating tales too improbable for our world.

The setting for this bar varies by story teller but its true location is neither of our time nor of our world. It is in a place that is no place and of a time that is no time. You may call it what you will; some call it Erehwon. The bar between the worlds is not the only establishment to grace the streets of Erehwon. There are others. One, quite a favorite of mine, is a gourmet restaurant called Andre's. The decor runs to wood paneling and rich brocades. The waiters are attentive, unobtrusive, and infinitely skilled. The food is simply marvelous. I have dined there alone with guests many a time.

Not long ago I held a small discrete dinner party at Andre's. I chose the menu with care. One is never presented with a menu when one dines at Andre's. Andre knows what you want or, if you wish to order for yourself, he is prepared to meet your demands, whatever they might be, as long as they do not insult the sensibilities of his chef. The chef is quite the man at Andre's. I have not met him; I am not, after all, one of Andre's distinguished guests.

The menu presented some problems. I was uncertain of the tastes of one of my guests and two of them, I knew, were strangers to fine restaurants. Still, I knew them all well, albeit not as well I would like, and I had hopes that my choices would suit them all.

For a soup I chose a gazpacho with a Saar Auslese to accompany it. No salad, of course, because I knew my guests were not fond of salads. An epicure would have denounced the choice as not being compatible with the rest of the meal but my guests were particularly fond of gazpacho and of German wines. For an appetizer I chose a pheasant and truffle pate, accompanied by a Haut Brion. For a main course, Beef Wellington, also with a Haut Brion. The side dishes were baked stuffed potatoes and a collage of raw carrots and cucumber slices, artistically arranged. The desert was a fruit torte, accompanied by a J.J. Prum Saar Trockenbeerenauslese. A hundred year old port was the after dinner drink, accompanied by some fine Stilton and a blue Cheshire. A simple repast, but one that I thought would suit my guests.

The guests were of all ages. The youngest was Richard Harter, just turned 19. Then there was the college student, Richard Harter, age 25. Neither of them had eaten in a restaurant such as this whereas Richard Harter, age 40, had a taste for epicurean delights. The final guest was Richard Harter, age 82, a fine old gentleman, well dressed and obviously quite well to do. There was also an old geezer, obviously destitute, who peered through the window at us during the course of the meal. I didn't know who he was although he looked like a shabbier and shop worn version of the eldest Richard Harter. We ignored him and pretended he wasn't there. Finally there was myself, Richard Harter at age 60, the host of the dinner.

The evening came and with it came my guests, from where and in what manner I know not. It was enough that they were in the setting of my desire. Silver service, food and wine appeared, brought by waiters almost unseen, servitors efficiently invisible in their uniforms of black and white. My guests settled in and the evening began.

The party was oddly assorted both by age and by dress. My two younger guests wore dress slacks and sport jackets; they both wore ties but they were obviously uncomfortable with them. Their garb did neither of them credit. My middle aged guest wore a presentable suit. If it was not as stylish as he thought and did him less credit than he thought, still it was presentable. The old gentleman was impeccably turned out. None of us were truly stylish, regardless of our clothes. We all, I fear, lacked the grace and carriage and the sense of style that mark the truly distinguished man. If you must know, the beggar out in the street wore a shabby ill fitting sport jacket that probably came from the Salvation Army.

"A toast, gentlemen," I cried, "a toast to each of us, to what we were and who we were, and to what we will be and who we will be." We drank, not without some confusion. My youngest guest had obviously never seen a wine goblet before and had no idea what I meant by a toast. After some fumbling he caught on and drank with the rest of us. The collegian and the forty year old looked embarrassed by his gaffe. The old gentleman was amused.

"Gentlemen," I said, "we are, each of us, the same self and yet very different selves. Surely, if a man knows anyone, he knows himself. And yet, with the years, a man changes, taking on new lives. Each of us lives a very different life. And in truth none of us knows the other as well as he might. Between us there are doors that are closed and chapters that go unread. Let us once, this evening, open those doors and let us read those unread pages in the book of life." The old gentleman snorted.

I ignored his impertinence; he was entitled to it, after all. "Perhaps" I said, "we can begin by each of us saying who we are and what we do, going from youth to age. Each of us has a different story and if some of us know another's story, still we do not know it as it was at the time. These tales may serve as well as wine to lubricate the conversation as we dine."

"Will you begin, sir?" I said, pointing at our youngest member.

The poor lad was obviously embarrassed and more than a little confused. He began bravely enough. "I live at home in Highmore and I work for my father on the ranch. I'm trying to become a science fiction writer."

"Excuse me," the old gentleman broke in, "but aren't you forgetting something. You're 19. You graduated from high school two years ago. Why aren't you in college?"

The young man turned red. If there had been a way to disappear under the table I think he would have been under it. He stammered "I'm taking a break from college."

"It's not just a break, is it not?" the old man continued. "Didn't they tell you that you weren't welcome there? Didn't you flunk out? Didn't the college tell you they didn't want you hanging around the dorms playing cards? Didn't you write some bad checks? Aren't you at home because you have no place to go? Aren't you a failure?"

Very low was the reply, "Yes sir."

I was embarrassed for the young man; we all were; but I was grateful to the old gentleman, for it had to be said, it had to be brought out. The collegian and the forty year old were almost as red. They had come to terms, or so they thought, with the past and put it behind them. They had not. There were unhealed wounds there beneath the scars, beneath the forgotten memories and the masks of badinage, wounds that hurt as badly as ever when exposed.

"And you, sir," I said, pointing to the collegian, "what is your story?"

The collegian was more confident. "I am a math major at Brookings, SD. I write poetry and do a lot of acting. I spend a lot of time in the student union teaching myself math that they don't teach here. I meditate and am learning about mysticism."

"Very creditable." I said. "Does the name Malda mean anything to you?"

Before he could reply I continued "Never mind. Young Richard doesn't know women exist. You know but you don't know what to do about it. Tell me about zoology."

He looked a bit offended at my comments about women but went on, "I don't know what you mean, sir. I need a year of zoology. I started it and dropped it but I can take it later on."

I let it go. Time enough later on to let him know what his "later on" led to. I turned to my forty year who was quietly confident and who was definitely enjoying the wine. "And you, sir, what is your tale?"

"I'm a mathematician and computer programmer. I'm an active science fiction fan. I'm a NESFA member, I go to conventions, and I publish fanzines. I do quite a bit of horseback riding. I'm a wine snob and I throw great new years parties. Christmas trees are my hobby."

My younger guests looked more than a little puzzled by this. Before they could raise some of the questions that they obviously wanted to ask I broke in.

"I'm semi-retired now that I've turned the company over to someone else to run. I gave up gardening quite a while ago but I'm still an active volleyball player. These days I spend a lot of time on the internet."

The old gentleman coughed delicately. "Ran the company?" he asked. I knew what he meant. Evidently it was my turn on the griddle.

"Perhaps not ran." I said. "I created the company. I created the product. But I didn't 'run' the company. I let other people impose their wills on me in the administration. I was a terrible executive. But I used other people. I let Mary run the company and fired her when I had to. I made a lot of mistakes. But I never quit; I kept going; I kept it alive. No matter what, I found a way. In the end I found people who could take what I started and could carry it on to make it work. I let them 'push' me out, knowing that was what was needed. Maybe other people could have done it better. Other people didn't do it. I did."

The old gentleman lifted his eyebrows but said nothing. I continued "And you sir, what about you? What is your story?"

"Oh, I just potter around." he said. "I still write a bit and I spend some time at the Institute but not as much as I used to."

Then he turned to me and smiled, "I suppose you should be pleased to know that you are definitely not sterile."

I was appalled at the implications of this remark but, before I could speak, the Beef Wellington appeared and we set in to dine seriously. It was both a pleasure and amusing to watch my younger guests discover the delights of Beef Wellington, a style of dish that had not previously come their way. I had forgotten how lean, how positively skinny they were and how voracious their appetites were. Food disappeared as though there were a famine and they were the marauding army that caused it.

I suspected that they would be more than a little tipsy by the end of the evening. They began the evening as strangers to fine wine but they certainly took to it with an enthusiasm untempered by the realization that wine should be sipped and not swilled. Middle aged Richard ate with a gusto and ease that told the world that this was a meal very much to his taste and of a style that he was accustomed to. The old gentleman was a finicky eater. He ate with neatness and precision but he was not a great consumer of food.

I noted with some envy that his figure was trimmer than mine. My younger guests were all quite lean; I did not start putting on weight until my late forties. I am not heavy but my waist line has expanded over the years and I carry twenty odd pounds that weren't there before. The old gentleman was trim again. I wondered if he dieted, something I have never done, or if his weight reflected still another change in our cycle of life. I determined to inquire of him the nature of this change but somehow the opportunity to ask never arose in the course of the evening. Oddly enough the old beggar who watched us longingly through the window was also lean, positively gaunt. His figure, I suspect, owed more to malnutrition than to diet.

Having inhaled his food, young Richard spoke first. If he was shy in the present company, he wasn't all that shy. All of us were ready enough to speak out in company.

"Excuse me", he said "I don't understand any of this. What is a computer programmer? What is volleyball? What is mysticism? Why are we all so different? Are you all really me? Am I really going to become you?"

I was not surprised he had questions; there were more surprises in store for him. I was a bit startled that he didn't know what volleyball was; it had been such a major part of my life for so many years. Upon reflection I recalled that he was a raw farm lad, that he had never seen and had never heard of the game. For that matter I suspected that my other younger guests knew little more.

I essayed an explanation for them. I explained a bit of the structure of the game and how it was played. I mentioned casually that I had been captain of a team for several years and had a string of trophies as a consequence. I guess they grasped the mechanics of the game but the thought of being a team captain and winning trophies was met with stares of blank incomprehension. They were, none of them, team players nor athletes and the concept was quite alien to them.

Middle aged Richard attempted an explanation of computers and computer programming. This was not entirely successful. Collegiate Richard caught on well enough. He broke in to explain that they had used computers at Cape Canaveral when he was on the missile range. This led to more confused questions from young Richard: "Where was Cape Canaveral? What was a missile range?" Collegiate Richard tried to explain.

"After I got out of the Marine Corps I went to Boston and worked at Raytheon as an technician for a year. Then I went to the Bahamas to work as a radar technician. They had an IBM 709 at mission control to direct tracking of the missile tests."

Young Richard asked "Am I going to be in the Marine Corps? How come?"

I broke in and put it to him gently. "This fall you are going to join the Marines. You aren't happy as a farmer and you're too out of control to handle college. It's the only thing open to you that you know how to do. You don't like it at first but it's good for you. It gives you some discipline and puts your life back together for you. Don't worry about it. Ask about the space program."

"What's the space program?" he asked.

Middle aged Richard picked up the thread. "In 1957 the Russians put an artificial satellite in orbit around the Earth. The US responds by starting a space exploration program of its own. Cape Canaveral in Florida becomes the launch point for a huge missile test program. In 1961 President Kennedy announces a program to put a man on the moon. In 1969 the US lands men on the moon."

This young Richard understood.

"You mean, like D.D. Harriman only the government does it instead and they do it in 1969 instead of 1978? Wow!"

He turned to me. "You're there, aren't you. It's almost the next century for you. Have they sent ships to Mars and Venus yet? Is there a lunar colony? You're living what I read about. What's it like?"

I shook my head sadly. "It isn't like what you read. We sent some men to the moon for half a dozen years and then stopped. We never went back. I don't think we could go back now if we wanted to. It was too expensive and there are too many other things that the government wants to spend money on. We put up satellites and every now and then some astronauts go up in orbit for a while. We talk a lot but we never do anything. The future died a long time ago. We make very good science fiction movies instead."

I don't think they understood, not really. They were all of them, even middle aged Richard, from an earlier time, a time that had a naive optimism about the future. Middle aged Richard had witnessed the death of the space program in the jungles of Viet Nam and the machinations of Richard Nixon. He had not seen the long slow blight as the dream withered in the bootless bureaucracy of NASA. You have to live in the arid aftermath of an apocalypse to really understand what the long slow death is like.

I continued. "But the moon landing was on television. Nowadays they have very slick space operas on television but they aren't real. The moon landing was on television and it was real. Half the world watched it on television."

Young Richard replied "I've heard about television but I've never seen it. Is it like the movies?"

No one tried to explain. It's just as well. Middle aged Richard turned to me and said "I sort of understand about volleyball but I don't understand about gardening and a company."

I replied "It's simple enough. A year from your now I moved out to Concord where I bought a house. For a while I became an avid gardener, with rose bushes and giant marigold hedges, an excellent strawberry patch, and a raspberry bramble. There were irises and day lilies, no end of bulbs, burning bushes, and a blueberry patch. It was lovely."

"After a few years of this I took the ideas you were kicking around in your mind and started a company to bring them to fruition. I wrote code on weekends and nights for a couple of years, bringing a product to life. Eventually I went full time and started promoting and selling the product. It was a long hard grind because I had no money - I bootstrapped it all the way. The time came when I raised money and turned running the company over to someone else. But until then my whole life was the company, that and volley ball."

"But what about fandom?" he asked. "What about all my friends?"

"Mostly I dropped out of fandom." I replied. "After the big feud it was never quite the same and when the company started eating all of my time it wasn't too hard to let it all slide. You just get caught up and nothing else matters."

I turned to the old gentleman. "You know." I said. "You seem well enough off. You seem happy enough. Did I do the right thing? Was it worth it?"

"Wrong question." he replied. "You did it. You felt you had to do it. If you hadn't done it you wouldn't be you; you'd be somebody else wearing your body. It's history. It's part of who you are. If it isn't worth while being yourself what is worth while?"

I suppose he was right. Somehow his answer didn't satisfy and yet, somehow, it was immensely satisfying.

Collegiate Richard turned to middle aged Richard and asked "I don't quite understand about fandom. What is fandom? And why Christmas trees?"

Middle aged Richard replied "Fandom is science fiction fandom. It is a global community of people who read, write, and talk about science fiction and about fandom. They put on conventions, social gatherings with panels and art shows and parties. They publish amateur magazines called fanzines. They write for fanzines and create amateur art. They talk endlessly about all sorts of ideas. Most of the SF writers and editors started out as fans. Fandom is a lot of fun; it's very interesting; and it's very social. It's very appealing for people who don't fit into the mundane world."

"Christmas trees, hmmm. It all started because I had a place to put up a Christmas tree. Every year I got more ornaments for the tree. Christmas trees are pretty. I like gaudy. Every year I would have a tree trimming party; I threw a lot of parties. I became a little bit obsessive, making ornaments and searching out new and unusual ornaments." He turned to me "Sort of like running a company, I guess."

Collegiate Richard looked very puzzled. "I just don't understand. It doesn't sound like me. It doesn't sound like anything I would do. Yeah, I read a lot of SF when I was him," pointing to young Richard, "but it's not something I do much of now. What happened to math? What happened to poetry? What happened to acting? What happened to Zen? What happened to the things I was doing? What happened to me?"

The old gentleman spoke up. "Time happened to you. You left college and went back to Boston. Your math got you a job as a scientific programmer. At your job you met people from the MIT Science Fiction club and you started hanging out there. They were interesting. You made some close friends. It became most of your social life. You stopped writing poetry. For a while you worked on a Ph.D. but you dropped out of that too. You took an easy path. You were well paid. You had friends. You had undemanding outlets for your creative impulses. Life was good and you were happy."

Collegiate Richard didn't look very happy with this but just then the fruit tortes and the Trockenbeerenauslese appeared in front of us. We savored. Even young Richard savored. It was too good not to savor. As I sipped my wine I glanced toward the window. The old beggar was still there. I thought for a moment of having a waiter take him out a torte but then thought better of it. He didn't belong there. He had no right to be there. This was our party.

The conversation was desultory while we finished our wine. Middle aged Richard, collegiate Richard and I explained forty years of technology and history to young Richard. It was fascinating to watch his mind at work. He was frighteningly brilliant but without any sense of reality. This was a young man who had taught himself the calculus of variations from an encyclopedia article. The mind was there but he knew nothing of the world, had no sense of the world beyond the farm and the school he had attended for a year. I was startled to recognize in him an instinctive grasping at obsessive fascination. I thought to myself "That explains so much about who and what he will become."

Plates and goblets were cleared. Cheeses and port appeared. We took a moment to appreciate the port and then the conversation began again in a more serious mode. Collegiate Richard returned to his quarrel with middle aged Richard.

"It seems to me" he said "that you threw it all away. I taught myself math at the graduate school level. I was just short of having a dramatics minor. I wrote poetry. Above all I was seriously seeking enlightenment. And you just let it slide. You forgot about it. You forgot about me. Instead you have this fandom garbage and some second rate math that you get well paid for."

I interrupted "It is not as simple as you make it seem. You made the choices that mattered. Remember Zoology?"

"Zoology? What about Zoology?"

"You couldn't stand Zoology lab. You really couldn't stand it. So you signed up for the course and dropped it. And then you did it again, sign up for it and drop it. And then you came up to the end and you still needed it. You had run out of money so you just quit. You went back out to Boston and that's when you got a job as a computer programmer."

"You mean I never finished my degree?"

"Oh, no, you came back later and finished the degree. It wasn't hard. You just needed a few more credits. You found a way to get around having to take Zoology. But you failed, just like he did.", pointing to young Richard.

"I don't see that I failed at all. I don't see that that changes anything" he said, stubbornly.

"There was another decision you made." the old gentleman said. "You made a choice. You decided that you could follow mathematics or you could seek enlightenment, but that you couldn't do both. You chose mathematics. Perhaps it was the right choice. The world needs second rate mathematicians more than it needs second rate saints."

"That's not fair." I said to the old gentleman. I turned to collegiate Richard. "You were very good at teaching yourself. When you take the graduate record exam in math you will ace it. That's nothing to sneeze at. But you aren't cut out to be a theoretician. What you were doing was, for you, something more important. You didn't just accept that which was given to you by the school. You went beyond that to set your own goals and to achieve them. If nothing else you redeemed your previous academic failure."

Collegiate Richard smiled. "I never thought of it that way. I guess I didn't want to think about what he did.", pointing to young Richard. "But what was the point of it all? What was the point if I did all that work and nothing came of it?"

"Wrong question." the old gentleman replied. "You did it. You felt you had to do it. If you hadn't done it you wouldn't be you; you'd be somebody else wearing your body. It's history. It's part of who you are. If it isn't worth while being yourself, what is worth while?"

Collegiate Richard looked as though he wasn't sure that he liked that answer.

Young Richard broke in, talking very fast, to middle aged Richard. "Excuse me sir. You said that you were a science fiction fan. Does that mean that know writers and editors?"

"Yes."

"Am I going to be a writer? I mean, I know you've got a job but do you write? Did you write? Did I ever become a writer?"

"Well, no." Richard replied. "You didn't. You're not a fiction writer. You, er, we have a talent for visualizing scenes and for constructing anecdotes. We can write. But we're not very good at constructing plots and creating characters. What's more you really have to want to be a writer if you're going to be a writer. We have too many other interests to be that dedicated. Besides" he smiled "it really doesn't pay that well."

Young Richard looked a bit disappointed. "I suppose. I guess I knew, somehow." He got very excited. "Do you really know the writers and editors? Did you ever meet Isaac Asimov?"

"Oh, yes, many times. He lived in Boston, you know. I've met most of the writers and editors at one time or another and some of them are good friends. It's no big deal. They're just people. Interesting people, but just people."

Young Richard didn't say anything but his eyes were shining.

Collegiate Richard turned to me. "You said that you spent a lot of time on the internet. What's the internet?"

I sighed. This wasn't going to be easy. "Computers will change a lot from your day. They don't use punched cards anymore; instead they have terminals. A terminal has a keyboard much like a typewriter. There is a screen like a TV screen which can display text and pictures. In the eighties and nineties they started hooking all of the computers together in big networks. They weren't just machines for solving problems any more. They became communication machines."

"Richard" I said, pointing to middle aged Richard, "publishes a fanzine. It's an amateur magazine. It doesn't go to very many people and it isn't very good. He doesn't need a big company and a big press to publish his little magazine. It's just a hobby. A lot of other people publish fanzines. It doesn't seem like very much but they're very important because they're samizdat."

Collegiate Richard asked "What's samizdat?"

"During the latter years of the Soviet Union people put together underground letters and publications, much like fanzines. They called this underground free press samizdat. It was a way for people to keep informed, to express themselves in ways that the government didn't want them to. Samizdat is the very heart of the idea of a free press. It doesn't come from the government; it doesn't come from big corporations; it comes from the people themselves."

"The trouble with fanzines is that they're just for SF fans. But the internet does the same thing as fanzines and more. It's not just for SF fans; the whole world has access to the internet. There is electronic mail, electronic discussion groups, and the world wide web. From my home I can visit sites any where in the world. It's wide open, a world wide electronic free press, a people's free press. The governments can't stop it. It is the ultimate samizdat."

The evening was well nigh done. Gaslights cast golden shadows across the table. Darkness reigned outside, interrupted by the twinkle of street lights in the distance. The old beggar was still there, peering wistfully through the leaded panes. For a moment I thought that perhaps I should have given him a torte. I shook my head and turned my thoughts back to the table.

Cheeses had been reduced to fragments. Port glasses were long empty. Waiters appeared. Salvers and goblets disappeared. Steaming cups of black coffee took their place. We settled back to enjoy our coffee.

"Gentlemen" I said, "it has indeed been a most pleasant and enjoyable evening. As a fitting cap for the evening let us have a judgment. Usually age judges youth from the perspective of experience. Here we have a unique opportunity, for the young to judge the old on what they have become and what they have done. Let us go around the table, from youth to age, and render our judgments."

Young Richard was drunk and was very mellow. "I just don't know." he said. "I don't understand most of it. It sounds like an interesting life. I can't say whether anything was right or wrong." Then he smiled and said "I'm glad we got to meet Isaac Asimov."

Collegiate Richard delivered his judgment. "I think" he said "that we went wrong somewhere, that we made wrong choices without knowing it." He waved at the rest of us, "What you've all done is interesting. I'm sure it's worthwhile. But I could have been an actor; I could have been a writer; I could have been a professor; I could have been a lot of things. I guess the problem is that I never made a decision to do something I really wanted to do, not the hard kind of decision that I needed to make. It sounds like we just let life make our decisions for us. I guess that's okay but I wish that we had done something, anything, that I really wanted to do."

Middle aged Richard turned to me. "I guess you did what you had to do. I liked what you said about gardening. I think I will enjoy that. And I'm impressed by the company. I didn't know we had it in us. But I'm disappointed that you let my friendships slide. I understand what he is saying." pointing to collegiate Richard. "You've dropped everything that was important to me and went off and became somebody else. I won't say it's bad but it's strange."

I turned to the old gentleman. "You've been very quiet, sir. How are we to judge you when we don't know what you've done, what you are?"

"Richard, Richard, Richard," he said, softly. "They are real. I'm just a possibility, one of many. I'm who you hope you will be in twenty years. But you know, and don't you deny it, that you have gambled on being rich or poor, not as a young man but rather as a man on the very edge of retirement. I am who you hope you will be if you win that gamble. He", and here he pointed to the wretch outside the window, "is who you fear you will be if you lose that gamble."

We were all quite shocked at his words but, before we could speak, Andre appeared with the bill. "I hope" he said "that everything was to your satisfaction."

"Oh yes," I said as I signed the bill "everything was excellent. My guests and I were quite satisfied."

"Guests, Monsieur? Guests? You have no guests."

I looked around at the empty table and nodded. He was right. I had dined alone.

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This page was last updated August 3, 1997.
It was moved December 13, 2006
Copyright © 1997 by Richard Harter