I wasn’t born ugly. I’ve seen snapshots of myself as a baby, as a toddler. Beautiful little girl with springy dark curls, shining dark eyes, a happy smile. (Possibly if the snapshots were in sharper focus you’d see imperfections.) There aren’t many of these old snapshots and there’s a suspicious absence of others in them—now and then adult arms positioning or lifting me, an adult in trousers seen stooping from behind (my father?), a woman’s lap (my mother?). When I lived at home I’d stare at these snapshots with my name written on the backs, in pencil—they were like riddles in a foreign language. God, I wanted to tear them into shreds!
Then one day it came to me. That beautiful little girl was your sister. She died, and when you were born they gave her your name.
As good an explanation as any.
“Hey waitress, over here!”
“Where you been, taking a leak? More coffee.”
I came to Sandy Hook, on the Jersey shore, to waitress. The place was the Sandy Hook Diner, built to resemble an old-fashioned railroad car, glinting like tin on the outside a counter and stools, some tables and booths crowded together on the inside. The atmosphere was breezy and casual. A little rough. I liked it, though. Among the patrons were numerous regular customers, men, friends of the owner who whistled to get the attention of waitresses, often called out their orders from where they sat. These were men who ate their food quickly and with appetite, lowering their heads toward their plates, talking and laughing with their mouths full. Such customers were not hard to please if you did as they asked. They did not notice if my wide waitressy smile was forced, pained, faked or ironic; after the first few days, they scarcely glanced at my face. My body engaged their interest, though—my heavy swinging breasts, my sturdy muscular thighs and buttocks. I weighed one hundred forty-six pounds, at five feet six. During a hot spell in September I wore loose-fitting tank tops with no bra beneath. I wore SANDY HOOK PIER Day-Glo blue T-shirts and a short denim skin with metallic studs that glittered like rhinestones. My single pair of jeans, bleached white and thin from numerous launderings, showed the bulging curve of my ass, and the crevice of its crack vivid as a cartoon drawing. (I knew, I’d studied the effect in a mirror.) My bare legs were fleshy, covered in fine brown hairs; I wore sandals and, as a joke, painted the nails of my stubby toes eye-catching shades of green, blue, frosty silver. Often, at rush hours, I was out of breath, my mouth moist and slack, my long snarly hair damp and clotted as seaweed at the nape of my neck. Hauling trays bearing eggs, sausage, thick hamburgers oozing blood, french fries and fried fish fillets and clattering bottles of beer, I was a conversation piece, an impersonal object over which men could exchange sly grins, roll their eyes, sniff provocatively in the area of my crotch and murmur innuendos as I set plates before them—“Mmmm baby, this looks good.” I learned to obey, like a good-natured dog, earsplitting whistles, even to laugh at my own haste. In high school I’d been a good athlete, not a good student. I didn’t mind sweating in public.
The man who owned the Sandy Hook Diner, Lee Yardboro, a barrel-chested guy in his forties, bulldog face and bulging pale-blue eyes, sometimes liked me well enough; other times, everything I did seemed to piss him off. Once, struggling with a heavy tray, I lurched into the kitchen and Mr. Yardboro stormed in behind me and pinched the flesh of my upper arm—"Slow down, babe. You’re panting like a horse.” I laughed nervously, as if Mr. Yardboro had meant to be funny. His chunky teeth were bared in a grin and the clusters of broken capillaries in his cheeks gave him the look of a cheery, good-natured guy, but I knew better.
I began to notice a frequent if not regular customer in the Sandy Hook Diner. He’d signal for a waitress by raising a hand and actually lowering his head, his eyes swerving downward in a kind of embarrassment or shame. He always wore a tweed suit and a buttoned-up white shirt and no tie; he was a big, ungainly man, well above six feet, must’ve weighed two hundred twenty pounds, with a boyish-fattish face, and an oblong head like an exotic squash, and heavy-lidded, hooded eyes that settled upon me, or upon my body, with a look of frowning disapproval. Ugly girl! Showing yourself like that, in public.
This character was ugly, himself. Eye-catching ugly. But ugliness in a man doesn’t matter, much. Ugliness in a woman is her life.
In fact, he reminded me of a math teacher at our junior high (my hometown was an hour’s drive inland from Sandy Hook, in central New Jersey) who’d quit or been fired when I was in seventh grade; but this man seemed too young to be Mr. Cantry, I thought. That had been nine years ago.
The man in the tweed suit wore his hair clipped short, in a crew cut. It was a flat metallic color, a non-color, like his eyes. He seemed always to sit in my section of the diner, in a corner booth. There he’d read a book, or give that impression. His expression tightening as I approached with my pert waitress smile and sauntering hips, order pad and pencil in hand. There would be no small talk here. No crude-sexy banter. No laughs. I felt a physical repugnance for the man but had to admit he was always cordial, courteous. Called me “waitress”—“miss”—and left a sizable tip, as much as twenty percent, which was twice as much as most customers at the Sandy Hook. I’d call brightly after him, “Thank you, sir!” as much to embarrass him as to express gratitude, for in truth I didn’t feel gratitude, I was likely to be more contemptuous of customers who tipped me well than of those who didn’t.
The man in the tweed suit wasn’t known by name in the diner. Behind his back, he was referred to as “Lover Boy”— “Fag Boy.” The word fag on anyone’s lips aroused particular hilarity. You’d have thought that Lee Yardboro who owned the diner would feel protective of any customer, and grateful, but that wasn’t the case. When Mr. Yardboro cracked one of his jokes everyone laughed, including me, in a way I’d cultivated in high school that was laughing-not-laughing; making helpless choking sounds as if I was trying not to laugh, shoulders and breasts shaking.
Sometimes I saw the man in the tweed suit on the street in Sandy Hook, always alone. Walking with mincing steps as if his legs hurt. One day I saw him on the pier, walking slowly, staring at the ground, oblivious of the glittering ocean, the waves crashing and throwing up spray only a few yards from him. I wondered what he was thinking that was so much more important to him than where he stood. I envied him, sunk so deep in himself. As if he mattered!
I never followed the man in the tweed suit, I only observed from a distance, unseen. When I wasn’t working my shifts I had a lot of time to kill. My rented room in a convened Victorian house depressed me, so I avoided it. Even as I had to admit (I’d boasted to my family) it was a bargain, at off-season rates, and only five minutes from the ocean by foot. There was a telephone for my use even if I had no one I wanted to call, and no one to call me. There was a double bed with a mattress soft as something decomposing in which, every night, for as long as ten hours if I could manage to stay asleep that long, I lay in a deep dreamless sleep like a corpse at the bottom of the ocean.
What did I look like, aged twenty-one? I wasn’t sure.
Just as fat people learn not to view themselves full-length in mirrors, so ugly people learn to avoid seeing what it’s pointless to see. I wasn’t what you’d call fat, and took a perverse satisfaction in contemplating my dumpy, mock-voluptuous female body in my ridiculous clothes, but I’d stopped looking at my face years before. When, for practical purposes, I couldn’t avoid looking, I’d stand close to a mirror, sidelong, to examine parts, sections. An eye, a mouth. A minuscule portion of nose. I didn’t wear makeup and didn’t pluck my eyebrows (I’d plucked my eyebrows more or less out in high school, furious at the way they grew together over the bridge of my nose, wrongly confident they’d grow back) and there was no problem about scrubbing my face with a washcloth, brushing my teeth stooping low over the sink as I did once a day, before going to bed. My hair was no problem, I didn’t need to look into a mirror to brush it, if I bothered to brush it; I could snip off ends myself with a scissors without consulting a mirror when it grew too long, snarly. Sometimes I wore a head rag for an Indian-funky look.
One advantage of ugly: you don’t require anyone to see you the way a good-looking person does, to be real. The better-looking you are, the more dependent upon being seen and admired. The uglier, the more independent.
Another advantage of ugly: you don’t waste time trying to look your best, you will never look your best.
What I remember of my face is a low forehead, a long nose with a bulblike tip, dark shiny eyes set too close together. Those dark thick eyebrows like an orangutan’s. A mouth of no distinction but well practiced, before I entered my teens, in irony. For what is irony but the repository of hurt. And what is hurt but the repository of hope. My skin was darkish-olive like something smeared by an eraser. My pores were oily, even before puberty. In some eyes I looked “foreign”—another mode of ugly. In high school I was the heavy-faced sullen girl slouched in her desk picking at her pimply face. Some pimples were tiny as sand grains, others the size of boils, raging-red and painful. But irresistible. My fingernails sought out the myriad imperfections in my face, drawing pus, blood. Dabbing at wounds with a much-wadded filthy tissue. A pimply face is a pimply soul. A scarred face, scarred soul. Even on duty at the Sandy Hook Diner, I’d be dreamily touching my face, scratching, picking. The worst of the acne was gone but scars remained. I’d do a fond inventory of them, reading my skin like braille. Like a blind person whose vision of herself is the true, the perfect vision; not the one you think you see.
• • •
One morning a friend of Mr. Yardboro’s, a trucker who regularly ate breakfast at the diner, whistled to get my attention. And the man in the tweed suit sitting in a corner booth said to me, in disgust, "Why do you tolerate it?” I stared in surprise at him, that he’d actually spoken to me. He walked out of the diner, leaving half his breakfast uneaten. And no tip.
Later that morning when the diner was nearly empty, he returned to look for a glove he’d left behind. But we found no glove in the area of the booth in which he’d been sitting. He said, embarrassed, annoyed, “It isn’t my business, of course. You, and this environment.” I said, defensively, “Well. I work here.” He said, “It’s ugly to witness. I realize you need the employment. For why else. You seem not to expect better.” He spoke in rapid spurts, as if he wasn’t accustomed to speaking to another person face to face. He was staring grimly at me, a head taller than me, his thick, fleshy lips curled in disdain. He was a youngish-old man whose stomach and torso were most of him, swollen like a tumor.
I said, “I’m new at being a waitress. But I like it. I like it here. I’m grateful for the job.”
It was true: I’d had several jobs in the past fifteen months.
It was true: I was grateful. I’d joked with myself that, if things didn’t work out at the Sandy Hook Diner, in this going-to-seed resort town on the Jersey coast, I could always wade out into the surf.
“What is your age?”
“My age? Twenty-one.”
“I think you were a student of mine? Years ago.”
Mr. Cantry? He was?
“But I’ve forgotten your name.”
Xavia was no name I’d ever heard of. Like static, it had flown into my head.
Mr. Cantry frowned, as if suspecting I might be lying. He introduced himself as Virgil Cantry and put out his hand to shake mine. I had no choice but to take it, with a slight shiver.
After he left, I tried to remember what had happened to Mr. Cantry nine years ago. I hadn’t liked him as a teacher—I hadn’t liked most of my teachers. There’d been rumors, wild tales. He’d quarreled publicly with the school principal one day in the cafeteria. He’d slapped a boy. He’d yelled at boys throwing snowballs at his car. He’d been stopped for speeding—drunken driving—he’d resisted arrest and been beaten by police, handcuffed. Or he’d had a breakdown in some public place—a local store, a doctor’s waiting room. Or maybe he’d gotten sick, had major surgery. He’d been hospitalized for a long time and when at last he was released, his job teaching seventh and eighth grade math was no longer waiting for him.
Next day, and the next, Mr. Cantry stayed away from the Sandy Hook Diner. I was relieved when he didn’t show up.
Then one evening after my late shift, there he was, waiting for me in the doorway of a dry cleaner’s up the block. Awkwardly expressing surprise at seeing me. It was raining, and he flourished a big black umbrella to hold over me—“Xavia! A coincidence.”
So we walked together. Blindly, it seemed. Mr. Cantry wore a trench coat with a flared skirt, a visored cap tugged down tight on his odd-shaped head. He seemed excited, nervous. He will lead you out into the sand dunes, he will rape and strangle you. He asked if he might walk me home and I heard myself say in my bright waitressy voice, “Why not?”
Loneliness is like starving: you don’t realize how hungry you are until you begin to eat.
“I’m no longer a teacher, if you’re wondering. I’d describe myself as a private citizen. A witness.” Mr. Cantry spoke soberly, never doubting I’d be interested in what he had to say. From his looming height he glanced sidelong at me, holding the umbrella over me at a gallant distance. I wore rust-red corduroy slacks with a fly front that barely fit me, they’d grown so tight, and a sweatshirt from my semester at a community college with the words POETRY POWER on the front; over this, a canvas jacket one of the other waitresses had been going to throw away. “I’ve been sick, but now I’m well. I’m very well. It’s as if, in my sickness, 'Virgil Cantry’ was burnt out, purified.” He paused, breathing hard. He said, more intimately, “When you started waitressing at the diner, I believed I recognized you at once. But not your name—Xavia. Odd that I wouldn’t recall such an exotic name.”
“I wasn’t an exotic student. I almost flunked math.”
“No. You were an intelligent, serious student. Perhaps anxious. Mature for your age. You asked for extra-credit assignments in homework and they were always diligently done.”
I laughed, surprised and annoyed. “That wasn’t me, Mr. Cantry.”
“Please call me Virgil. Yes, surely it was you.”
I resented it that this man, a stranger, should claim to know more about me than I knew about myself.
Now we were on the narrower, darker street where I lived. It was not a street familiar to me. I was thinking that, sometime in seventh grade, around the time I’d begun to menstruate, my skin had starred to erupt; it was possible that Virgil Cantry remembered me before that time. “You’ve moved away from your home, Xavia? You’re living alone now?”
I wanted to say Fuck you, that’s my own business. Instead I said nothing.
“I have never married,” Mr. Cantry said. “Some natures, it isn’t for them to marry. To sire children, in any case.”
“You don’t need to be married to have children, Mr. Cantry.”
“Marriage is the legalization of nature. Nature demands reproduction of the species. Blind instinct—that the species continues.”
I couldn’t argue with that. At least, this didn’t seem to be a marriage proposal.
At the run-down wood-frame house in which I rented a room, Mr. Cantry seemed to have more to say, but decided against it. I hid both hands in my pockets so that he couldn’t shake hands with me. From inside the musty-smelling vestibule I watched my former teacher carefully descend the porch steps and walk away slowly in the rain. On the porch with me he’d shut up the umbrella without knowing what he did, as if preparing to come inside the house; now, out in the rain, he’d forgotten to open it.
That night I had a rare dream, a hurt-fantasy. At the Sandy Hook Diner required to serve the customers, who were men, naked. A filmy strip of cloth like a curtain wrapped around me, coming loose. My breasts were exposed, I couldn’t conceal myself. My coarse-hairy groin. The men called waitress! here! Like you’d call a dog. But it was meant to be playful, they were just teasing. No one actually touched me. I had to come close to them to serve them their food, but no one touched me. They were eating pieces of meat, with their fingers. I saw bright blood smeared on their mouths and fingers. I saw that they were eating female parts. Breasts and genitals. Slices of pink-glistening meat, picked out of hairy skin pouches the way you’d pick oysters out of their shells. The men laughed at the look in my face. They tossed coins at me, nickels and pennies, and I stooped to pick the coins up and my face heated with blood and I felt a strong sexual sensation like the pressure of a rubber balloon being blown larger and larger about to burst and I woke anxious and excited my heart beating so rapidly it hurt and cold, slick sweat covered my body inside my soiled flannel nightie and it was a long time before I got back to sleep. I didn’t dream about Mr. Cantry at all.
By the end of November my shifts at the Sandy Hook Diner had been cut back. They were unpredictable, depending upon the availability of other waitresses (I gathered). One day I might begin at 7 A.M., the next day at 4: 30 P.M.. Other days, I didn’t work at all. I slept.
Since the evening he’d walked me home, I hadn’t spoken with Mr. Cantry. When I worked the evening shift he’d linger over coffee as late as 10 P.M. in the hope of “escorting” me home.
Thanks I said. But I have another engagement.
I whispered fiercely to him not wanting anyone else to hear.
I was in perpetual terror of being fired from the Sandy Hook Diner and so moved in a trance of energy, high spirits and smiles. My wide, fixed smile was so deeply imprinted in my face, it was slow to fade after my shift ended; sometimes, waking in the middle of the night, I discovered that it had returned. Waitress! waitress! I heard myself summoned impatiently and turned to see no one, no customer, there.
At Thanksgiving I took a bus home not wanting to go home but my mother pleaded with me angrily on the phone and I knew it was a mistake but there I was, in the old house, the house of one thousand and one associations and all of them depressing, the smell of the roasting turkey sickened me, the smell of the basting grease, the smell of my mother ’s hair spray so I realized I wouldn’t get through it within minutes after walking through the door and that afternoon we were working together in the kitchen and I said excuse me, Mom, I’ll be right back and when I came back with the old photo album the palms of my hands were cold with sweat and I said, “Mom, can I ask you something?” and guardedly my mother said, for years of living with me had made her wary, “What?” and I said, “Promise you’ll tell the truth, Mom?” and she says, “What is the question?” and I said again, “Promise me you’ll tell the truth, Mom,” and she said, annoyed, “How can I promise, until I hear the question?” and I said, “All right. Did I have a sister born before me, given my name, and did she die? That’s all I want to know,” and my mother stared at me as if I’d shouted filthy words right there in her kitchen and said, “Alice, what?” and I repeated my question which was to me a perfectly logical question, and my mother said, “Of course you didn’t have a sister who died! Where do you get your ideas?” and I said, “Here. These snapshots,” and I opened the album to show her the snapshots saying, in a low, furious voice, “Don’t try to tell me this is me, it isn’t,” and my mother said, her voice rising, “Of course she’s you! That’s you! Are you crazy?” and I said, “Can I believe you, Mom?” and she said, “What is this? Is this another of your jokes? Of course that’s you,” and I said, wiping at my eyes, “It isn’t! Goddamned liar! It isn’t! This is someone else, this isn’t me! This is a pretty little girl and I’m ugly and this isn’t me!” and my mother lost it then as often she did in our quarrels, lost it and began shouting at me, and slapped my face, sobbing, “You terrible, terrible girl! Why do you say such things! You break my heart! You are ugly! Go away, get away! We don’t want you here! You don’t belong here with normal people!”
So I left. Took the next bus back to Sandy Hook so it seemed, when I went to bed that night, early, hoping to sleep through twelve hours at least, that I’d never been gone.
The following Sunday evening Mr. Cantry came to my apartment house. It was the first time the buzzer to 3F had been rung in the weeks I’d been living here and the noise was loud as the buzzing of crazed wasps. I wished I hadn’t known right away who it must be, but I knew.
Took my time going downstairs in my soiled POETRY POWER sweatshirt and jeans. And there was exactly who I’d expected. My ex-teacher squinting at me out of his shiny no-color eyes. He wore the trench coat with the flared skirt, he was turning his visored cap nervously in his fingers. “Xavia, good evening! I hope I’m not interrupting? Would you like to join me in a meal?—not at the Sandy Hook Diner.” He paused for my response but I didn’t smile, I said only that I’d already eaten, thank you. “Then to go for a walk? To have a drink? Is this a possible time? I saw you were not on duty at the usual place so I presumed to come here. Are you angry?”
I intended to say Thank you, but I’m busy. I heard myself say, “I could take a walk, I guess. Why should I be angry?”
I’d been cool to Mr. Cantry in the diner, the last couple of times he’d come in. I didn’t like him brooding in his corner booth watching me. Frowning-smiling like sometimes he didn’t actually see me, God knows what he was seeing. And the day before, some guys had been teasing me the way some of the regular customers do, passing around a copy of Hustler, I was supposed to catch a glimpse of these photos of female crotches in stark close-up as in an anatomical text. My part was to pretend I didn’t see, didn’t know what it was I didn’t see, my face blushing in patches. Hey guys, I wish you wouldn’t! My embarrassed downcast eyes. My wide hips, my hubcap breasts inside a SANDY HOOK PIER T-shirt and unbuttoned sweater. But it’s okay I’m a good sport. Not begging exactly, guys hate females who beg, like females who cry, makes them feel guilty, reminds them of their mothers. More like I was asking for their protection. And it was okay or would have been except there was Mr. Cantry looming up behind me, in his old teacher-voice and his mouth twisted in disdain, “Excuse me! Just one moment, please!” and the guys gaped up at him in astonishment not knowing what the hell was going on but I knew, I believed I knew, quickly I turned and tugged at Mr. Cantry’s sleeve and led him back to his booth and whispered, “Leave me alone, goddamn you!” and he said angrily, “They are harassing you, those disgusting louts,” and I said, “How do you know? How do you know what’s going on?” So I got Mr. Cantry to settle down and I returned to the men and they were laughing, making remarks, I more or less pretended not to catch on, just a dumb waitress, smiling anxiously and trying to please her customers Hey guys have a heart will you? so finally it worked out, they left me tips in small coins scattered across the sticky tabletop. And took away Hustler with them. But I was pissed at Mr. Cantry for interfering and would have asked him never to come into the Sandy Hook Diner again except that wasn’t my prerogative.
He was saying, “I hope you are not still upset? About yesterday?”
“Those customers are the owner’s friends. I have to be nice to them.”
“They are crude, vulgar. Animals—”
“And I like them, anyway.”
“You like them? Such men?”
I shrugged. I laughed. “Men, boys. Boys will be boys.”
“But not in my classroom.”
“You don’t have a classroom now.”
We were excited. It was like a lovers’ quarrel. I walked in quickened steps, ahead of Mr. Cantry. I believed I could feel the sharp stabbing pains in his legs, bearing the weight of his ungainly body.
We went to Woody’s, a café I’d seen from the outside, admiring the winking lights, a preview of Christmas. Through an oval window in a wall of antique brick I’d often seen romantic couples by firelight, holding hands at the curving bar or at tables in the rear. Once Mr. Cantry and I were inside, seated at a table, our knees bumping awkwardly, the place seemed different. The firelight was garishly synthetic and a loud tape of teenage rock music played and replayed like a migraine. Mr. Cantry winced at the noise, but was determined to be a good sport. I ordered a vodka martini—a drink I’d never had before in my life. Vodka, I knew, had the most potent alcohol content of any available drink. Mr. Cantry ordered a club soda with a twist of lemon. Our waiter was young and bored-looking, staring at Mr. Cantry, and at me, with a pointedly neutral expression.
“A person yearns to make something of himself. Herself. A being of distinction,” Mr. Cantry said, raising his voice to be heard over the din. “You must agree?”
I hadn’t been following the conversation. I was trying to twist a rubber band around my ponytail, which was straggling down my back, but the rubber band was old and frayed and finally broke and I gave up. My vodka martini arrived and I took a large swallow even as Mr. Cantry lifted his glass to click against mine, saying, “Cheers!”
I said, feeling mean, “But why should a person make something of himself?—herself? Who gives a shit, frankly?”
“Xavia. You can’t mean that.” Mr. Cantry looked more perplexed than shocked, the way my mother used to look before she caught on to the deep vein of ugliness to which she’d given birth. “I don’t think that’s an honest response. I challenge that response.”
I said, “Most people aren’t distinctive. Most lives come to nothing. Why not accept it?”
“But it’s human nature to wish to better oneself. That the inner being becomes outer. Not to sink into desolation. Not to—give up.” He spoke with a fastidious curl of his lip.
“Haven’t you given up, Mr. Cantry?”
This was a cruel taunt. I was aiming for the man’s heart.
But Mr. Cantry considered the question. “Outwardly, perhaps. Inwardly, no.”
“What’s inward? The soul? The belly?”
“Xavia, you shock me. This is not truly you.”
“If you look into a mirror, Mr. Cantry, do you seriously think that what you see isn’t you? Who is it, then?”
“I am disinclined to mirrors,” Mr. Cantry said, sniffing. He’d finished his club soda, ice and all, and was sucking at the lemon twist. “I have never taken mirrors as a measure of the soul.”
I laughed. I was feeling good. The vodka martini was a subtler drink than I’d expected, and delicious. Blue jets of flame raced along my veins. “Do you think much about death, Mr. Cantry? Dying?”
At first I thought he hadn’t heard, the noise in the café was so loud. Then I saw his stricken look. Almost, I regretted my question. In the flickering light I saw that his pallid skin, like what I recalled of my own, looked stitched together, improvised; as if he’d been smashed into pieces and carelessly mended. “Death, yes. Dying. Yes. I think about dying all the time.” He went on to speak of his parents who were both deceased, and of a sister he’d loved who had died of leukemia at the age of eleven, and of a dog he’d brought here to Sandy Hook to live with him, a cocker spaniel who’d died in August at the age of only seven years. Since this dog’s death, Mr. Cantry confessed, he’d had to face the prospect of, each morning, wondering where he would get the strength to force himself out of bed; he slept long, stuporous hours, and believed he came very close to death sometimes—" My heart stopping, you know, like a clock. The way my father died. In his sleep. Aged fifty-three.” As Mr. Cantry spoke, I saw tears gathering in his eyes. His eyes seemed to me beautiful, luminous; his moist loose lips; even the glisten of his nostrils. My heart beat quickly in resistance to the emotion he was feeling, the emotion that pumped through me yet which I refused to acknowledge. A mean voice taunted, So that’s why this guy has been trailing you. He’s lost his only friend—a dog.
I was fascinated by this ugly man who seemed not to know he was ugly. When rivulets of tears ran down his cheeks, and in embarrassed haste he wiped them with a cocktail napkin, I leaned back in my seat, and glanced around the crowded café, in a pose of boredom. Mr. Cantry’s nose was seriously running and he blew it at length in a sequence of tissues and by the time he was finished, I was well out of my sentimental mood.
I drained my vodka martini and rose to leave. Mr. Cantry fumbled to follow close behind me, swaying like a man in a dream. He said, “Xavia, I think you must know—I am attracted to you. I realize the difference in age. In sensibility. I hope I don’t offend you?”
There was a crush of people at the coatrack. We almost lost each other. Out on the sidewalk, in the freezing air, another time Mr. Cantry said, pleading, “I hope, Xavia—I don’t offend you?”
Pointedly, I didn’t answer. I’d thrown on my windbreaker and crammed my knit cap down tight on my head. The windbreaker was unisex and bulky and the navy blue cap made my head look peanut-small. I caught a sidelong glance at myself in a beveled mirror banked by ferns in the café window and winced even as I laughed. God, I was ugly! It was no exaggeration. Almost, such ugliness is a kind of triumph, like a basket you sink after having been fouled.
One day I overheard Maxine on the phone in the office, talking and laughing. Complaining to a friend, “That Lee!— he’s so damned soft-hearted. Leaves the dirty work to me.” She meant laying off employees. Dismissals.
A new McDonald’s had opened a mile away. We never acknowledged such rivals. Even to allude to them jokingly would be to stir Mr. Yardboro’s fury.
I had come to believe that Lee Yardboro, in his way, liked me. Yet he watched me closely, critically, as he watched all his help. If you were on Mr. Yardboro’s payroll, he wanted to make sure you were earning your salary. His pale-blue slightly bulging eyes following me, mouth working as he sucked at a toothpick. Speed it up, kid. But don’t go barging around like a goddamn horse. I obeyed Mr. Yardboro’s wishes without his needing to speak. I never complained behind his back, bitterly like certain of the other waitresses. Never cut corners, never hid away in the lavatory cursing and weeping. My only weakness (which I tried to keep secret) was eating leftovers from customers’ plates. Like most food workers, I’d developed a repugnance for food; yet I continued to eat, despite the repugnance; once I began eating, no matter the food, no matter how unappetizing, it was impossible for me to stop. The day I’d overheard Maxine on the phone, I pushed into the kitchen with a tray of plates and no one was watching so quickly I devoured the remains of a cheeseburger almost raw at its center, leaking blood, and several onion rings, and french fries soaked in catsup. In an instant I was ravenous, dazed. I starred in on another platter, devouring the remains of some batter-fried perch, a foul-fishy taste even catsup couldn’t disguise, and at that terrible moment Mr. Yardboro slammed through the swinging door whistling, must have seen me, my guilty frightened eyes and greasy mouth and fingers, but in a gesture of unexpected tact—or out of simple embarrassment, for there were things that embarrassed even Lee Yardboro—he continued on his way back into the office, pretending he hadn’t seen.
Though at closing time saying, with a disdainful twist of his mouth, and his blue gaze raking me up and down, “Eat as much leftover-crap as you want, honey. Saves wear and tear on the garbage disposal.”
After the Hustler incident Virgil Cantry stopped eating at the Sandy Hook Diner. He’d been asked not to patronize it any longer by Mr. Yardboro who told him that other customers had complained about him. I erased him from my thoughts like wiping down a sticky formica table.
Except. The blowy dark afternoon of Christmas Eve when we were closing early (it was a lonely time—Mr. Yardboro and his family were spending a week in Boca Raton, Florida), there came Mr. Cantry into the diner to ask if he could see me that evening. He wore a bulky black wool overcoat and his visored cap pulled down tight on his forehead. He looked tense, even grim. His eyes glared at me with yearning and reproach in about equal measure, as if I’d been the one to bar him from the Sandy Hook Diner. I wanted to snort with laughter What? Christmas Eve, with you? but I heard myself say, sighing, “Well. I guess. But only for a little while.”
Maxine and I had decorated the diner for Christmas. It looked cheap, tacky, gaudy but I was sort of proud of it, actually. There were tinsel strips, plastic mistletoe and holly strung around the booths, there was a three-foot plastic Christmas tree with winking bubble lights, there was a clownish fat-bellied plastic Santa Claus beside the cash register whose nose lighted up (the joke in the diner was, this figure resembled our boss Mr. Yardboro). I asked Mr. Cantry what he thought of the decorations, making my question ironic, and Mr. Cantry looked around as if taking inventory, slowly. With his old teacherly sobriety. There was no one else in the diner at the moment and, seeing it through this man’s eyes, I felt a wave of horror pass over me—that the Sandy Hook Diner was only this, the sum of its surfaces. Like one of those trendy hard-edged realist paintings of city scenes, neon, chrome, formica, plastic and glass and slick bright colors you stare at trying to comprehend why anybody’s asshole enough to have painted it.
Mr. Cantry said, meaning to be kind, “It does capture a kind of Christmas spirit.” Despite his legs that pained him, Mr. Cantry insisted upon coming to get me, at my apartment, to escort me to his. Walking with him, I wondered if varicose veins raddled his legs; if his legs were pulpy-white. I wondered if his feet swelled, like mine, like twin goiters requiring soakings in Epsom salts. I wondered if his penis hung down from his fatty groin like slick blood sausage or if it was withered-looking, wizened, like a certain kind of Italian sausage.
Mr. Cantry’s apartment was in a stucco apartment building with the date 1929 prominent on its portico, on a street parallel with my street, a few blocks away. It was an old, stately place, with an ornamental foyer and high ceilings. Mr. Cantry’ s living room had a fireplace (unused) and was crowded with old, inherited furniture. Embedded in a grimy Oriental rug as if woven into the fabric were strands of curly coppery dog hairs, and there were more dog hairs on the sofa on which Mr. Cantry invited me to sit. Heavy brocade draperies had been pulled across the windows, though not completely. There was a pervasive odor of something astringent and medicinal. A voice teased The scene of the seduction! While Mr. Cantry fussed in the kitchen, I examined a table laden with numerous framed photographs of Mr. Cantry’s kin, heavyset, earnest persons, most of them middle-aged or elderly, in the clothes and hairstyles of another era. In front of the photographs were bright color snapshots of a cocker spaniel with butterscotch fur and watery eyes. Mr. Cantry entered the room humming, carrying a silver tray with a tall champagne bottle and two crystal goblets and a platter of sizzling sausages and cheese bits. He said, “Ah, Xavia. Monuments to my beloved dead. It should not dampen our spirits, though. On Christmas Eve.”
He set the tray down in front of me as if I were a tableful of people. His eyes were moist with effort and his fingers trembled. Though I felt slightly sickened from the medicinal odor and an underlying smell of dust, dirt, grime, loneliness, I began to eat hungrily. Mr. Cantry said, “When you are the last of your bloodline, Xavia, as I am—you look backward, not forward. With children, you would of course be tugged forward. Your attentions, your hopes, I mean. Even your fears. But-forward. Into the future.”
I smiled, eating. “Well, I’m not in the mood for having a baby. Even if it’s Christmas Eve.”
“Xavia, you say such things!”
Mr. Cantry blushed, but with pleasure, as if I’d leaned over suddenly and tickled him. I’d become the brash smart-aleck student some teachers inexplicably court. “I was not speaking of either of us—of course,” he said quickly. “But only in theory.” He sat on the sofa beside me, unnervingly close; he seemed to have gained, in the privacy of his apartment, a degree of masculine confidence. With some effort he uncorked the champagne—it was a French champagne with a black label and pretentious gilt script—and poured brimming glasses for both of us. He laughed as some of the bubbly liquid spilled onto my fingers and corduroy slacks. “To the holiday season, Xavia! And to the New Year which I hope will bring us—both— much happiness.” There was something reckless in the way he smiled, and clicked his glass against mine, and drank. I asked, on a hunch, “Are you supposed to drink, Mr. Cantry?” and he said, hurt, “Christmas Eve is a special occasion, I think.”
If you’re an alcoholic there’s no occasion that can be special, I thought. I’d had a drinking problem myself, not too long ago. But I kept all this to myself.
Within a half-hour, Mr. Cantry and I had drained two large goblets of champagne. We’d devoured most of the greasy sausages and cheesebits. Mr. Cantry was giving me a complicated account of his sources of income; among them was a “disability pension” from the state of New Jersey. He said, “I have never married for the very good reason that I have never yet been in love.” He belched softly. There was a fizzing sensation in my head like minuscule popping bubbles, or brain cells. Transfixed, I saw a man’s large hand reach for my own hand, like one hairless creature capturing another. I knew it was funny, but I was beginning to feel panic. Mr. Cantry was breathing quickly, staring at me, murmuring, “You are so mysterious, Xavia! So exotic.” I said, “Do I look foreign?” He said, enunciating the word as if it were an aphrodisiac, “’Ex-o-tic."’ I said, "'Ug-ly.'" He said, gripping my hand tighter, “No! Not at all. Unlike these other young women waitresses I have observed in Sandy Hook, you, Xavia, are special.” I didn’t like to be told that there’d been other waitresses in Mr. Cantry’s life. “Yeah? Why am I so special?” I asked ironically. Mr. Cantry’s fingers were locked around mine and both our hands were resting heavily on my knee. He said, “Because you were my student, Xavia. None of these others can be so close." I laughed, disappointed. I extracted my sweating hand from his and my champagne glass overturned and spilled what remained of its contents onto the sofa. “Oh, oh!” Mr. Cantry fussed with napkins, distressed. I said, “I’m going now, Mr. Cantry. I don’t feel well.”
This wasn’t what Mr. Cantry wanted to hear. He said, breathing harshly, “You could lie down! Here, or in the other room. This is meant to be a happy occasion.” I said, “I don’t think I want to lie down.” I stood, and the room spun. Mr. Cantry lurched to his feet to steady me but he was unsteady himself, lost his balance, and we fell to the floor in a clumsy heap. I was laughing. I was on the verge of hyperventilating.
A voice teased The scene of the rape! Strangulation! I was crawling on my hands and knees, trying to escape. It passed through my mind that I hadn’t crawled on any floor for almost twenty years, I’d forgotten how. Somehow a lamp became unplugged, this end of the living room was darkened. Mr. Cantry was on his knees beside me, panting like a large overheated dog, stroking my hair. “Xavia, please forgive me! I did not mean to upset you.” I pushed at his hand in a way that might be construed as playful; the way Lee Yardboro and certain of his buddies bounced boyish punches off one another’s upper arms. But Mr. Cantry was strong, and he was heavy. Now stroking my back and kissing the nape of my neck through my tangled hair, his mouth damp and yearning. “I would love you, Xavia. You are in need of strong, devoted guidance. In that place, you demean yourself. If you are punished long enough, you become guilty. This is a fact I know. Xavia—” I panicked and shoved him, hard. He fell against a table, a cascade of framed photographs crashed to the floor and their glass shattered.
I crawled away, jumped up and grabbed for my windbreaker. Mr. Cantry was calling after me, “What have you done! How could you! Please! Come back!” Blindly I ran out of the apartment and down a flight of stairs and when I got back to my own place and bolted the door I saw that it was only 8:20 P.M. of Christmas Eve. It had seemed so much later.
All the night I thought Virgil Cantry might follow me, ring the buzzer downstairs wanting to apologize. But he didn’t. The phone didn’t ring. I wasn’t expecting my mother to call to wish me a happy Christmas just as I hadn’t planned on calling her, either, and this turned out to be true.
• • •
Two days later when I went in to work at the Sandy Hook Diner, I learned that Virgil Cantry had been arrested on Christmas Day for prowling in backyards and trying to look in a woman’s windows. Gleeful Maxine showed me the Sandy Hook Gazette, a brief paragraph in the police blotter column and a blurred photo of a man shrinking from the camera, trying to shield his face in a classic pose of shame. “That’s him. isn’t it? That guy who used to come in here all the time?” I took the paper from Maxine and read, amazed that on Christmas Eve a local woman had reported a male prowler in her backyard, a man peering into her windows; she’d screamed, and he’d run away, through neighboring backyards; she called police, who, next day, working with the woman’s description, and other information, arrested Virgil Cantry, thirty-nine, a Sandy Hook resident who lived within a mile of the woman and who’d denied the charges. “I don’t believe this,” I said numbly. “I know him, he wouldn’t do such a thing.”
Maxine and the others laughed at me, at the look in my face.
I said, “No! Really. He wouldn’t, ever.”
I went to hang up my jacket, dazed as if I’d been hit over the head. Behind me I could hear them talking, laughing. That hum and buzz of jubilation.
On my break I ran to police headquarters a few blocks away. I asked to see Virgil Cantry and was told that he wasn’t there; he hadn’t been arrested, as the Gazette had stated, only brought in for questioning. I was excited, upset; I demanded to speak with one of the investigating officers; I told him that Mr. Cantry was a former teacher of mine and we’d been together on Christmas Eve and he couldn’t possibly have been the man prowling in backyards. “And Mr. Cantry couldn’t run, either. He has a problem with his legs.”
I learned that the woman making the complaint had called police at 8:50 P.M. of Christmas Eve. It was ridiculous, I thought, to imagine that Virgil Cantry had gone out after I’d left him, in the condition he was in, to behave in such a desperate way. I insisted we’d been together until 9:30 P.M. I gave an official statement to the Sandy Hook police, signed my name. I was trembling, incensed. I saw that they disliked me, my looks, my excited voice and gestures, but probably they believed me. “It’s got to be someone else,” I said. “You have no right to harass Mr. Cantry.”
Afterward I would learn that Virgil Cantry had been one of several men brought to the station for questioning. Though he hadn’t seemed to fit the woman’s description of a burly dark-haired man in a leather jacket, with a scruffy beard, police had brought him in anyway since he was one of the few local residents with a police record (for public intoxication disturbing the peace and resisting arrest nine years before— charges to which he’d pleaded guilty in exchange for probation and fines instead of a prison term). The following week the prowler was sighted again, and arrested.
When Lee Yardboro returned from Boca Raton, trimmer by a few pounds, tanned and ebullient, he was told of the ”arrest” of his former customer and how I’d gone to police headquarters, what I’d said. It had become a familiar tale at the diner, repeated frequently, laughed over. Mr. Yardboro thought it was funny, too; he was a man who liked to laugh. Teasing me, “What, honey, you’re Lover Boy’s girl? How the hell long’s this been going on?”
My face burned as if it was on fire. “No. I just wanted to help him.”
“Yeah? But you were with him, you said? Christmas Eve?”
Mr. Yardboro laughed, laughed. His warm heavy hand falling on my shoulder.
In mid-January I discovered a letter for “Xavia,” neatly typed, in a plain white envelope slipped into my mail slot.
Thank you. I am deeply grateful to you. But so humiliated. I see I am “fair game” in this terrible place.
I never saw him again. I suppose he moved away from Sandy Hook. But he’d loved me for an hour, at least. I hadn’t loved him and that was too bad. But for that hour, I was loved.
One day in late January Mr. Yardboro called me into the kitchen to give me instructions in fish cleaning. One of the kitchen help had just departed the Sandy Hook Diner, there was urgent need for a cook’s assistant.
Sucking at a toothpick, Mr. Yardboro pointed to the cleaver already moist with watery blood, and told me to take it up. Eight whole fish had been placed belly up on the butcherblock table. “Start with the heads, sweetheart. Chop-chop! Care-ful. Now the tails. Don’t swing crooked. Don’t be shy. Good girl!”
My fingers were like ice. I was excited, nervous. Mr. Yardboro smiled at my squeamishness.
Rainbow trout, perch, halibut. These fish were bought unfilleted from the Hoboken supplier because they were much cheaper that way. They were to be gutted and cleaned and deboned and rinsed in cold water and fried in greasy breadcrumbs or baked and stuffed in a gummy substance described in the menu as mushroom-crab dressing which was in fact chopped mushroom stems and that repulsive synthetic food imported from Japan, sealegs.
The fish were slithery-cold. Like snakes. Their scales winked in the bright overhead fluorescent light. Black button-eyes gazing up at me, bland and unblaming. One day you’ll be in this position. You won’t feel a thing.
I swung the heavy cleaver in a wider, wilder arc than Mr. Yardboro wished. The sharp blade neatly decapitated a trout and sank a half-inch into the wood. Mr. Yardboro whistled. “Not so hard, sweetheart. You’re a strong girl, eh?”
I laughed, meaning to enjoy this.
The fish-stink was making me slightly nauseated, though. And that ringing in my ears. (I’d been taking diet pills for quick energy.) But I did as Mr. Yardboro instructed, chopping heads and tails and pushing them into a bucket on the floor. Without the round black eyes gazing at me, I performed more capably.
“Now the guts and innards, kid. Go right in.”
Mr. Yardboro, who often boasted he’d gone ocean fishing since he’d been a kid, responsible for cleaning his own catch, showed me how it was done. His fingers were stubby but deft and quick. My fingers were stubby but less certain.
I was clumsy. Guts stuck to my fingers. Blood, tissue. Bits of broken bone beneath my nails. I must’ve reached up to touch my hair. Later I’d discover a strand of translucent fish gut in my hair and I’d figure that was why Mr. Yardboro smiled at me in that way of his.
Next deboning. “Never mind trying to get 100 percent of the bones,” Mr. Yardboro said. “This isn’t the Ritz.” I was clumsier yet, trying to detach fish backbones from raw flesh. And how exquisitely fine these bones. Curving translucent bones, some of them no larger than a hair, a filament. It seemed amazing to me that inside the sleek fish bodies there was a labyrinth of tiny bones. So easily broken by a clumsy human hand. “What’re you waiting for? Get rid of that crap.”
Quickly I pushed the bones into the bucket. What a stink arose from that bucket. The kitchen’s fans were roaring full blast.
“Okay, honey. Let’s see you do the operation by yourself, A to Z. Chop-chop.”
Lee Yardboro wasn’t much taller than I was but he loomed over me. Slightly crowding me. Nudging my shoulder with his. Like we were equals almost, but I knew better.
Through my life I’d never be able to eat fish without smelling the odors of the Sandy Hook kitchen and feeling a wave of excitement so intense it shaded into nausea. Raw fish guts, fried fish, greasy bread crumbs. I was sickened, but still I ate.