a version of this story was first published at Tough in May, 2019
The waitress studied the man seated at his customary window table. She caught him looking at her three or four times since taking his order. There. He looked at her again.
She’d watched the man all week. He’d visited the restaurant seven or eight straight business days, ordering the same item off the lunch menu. Always alone, he wore the same well-pressed suit and gray hat, which he’d place on the same hook, as if he were born to do that. Maybe there wasn’t much to figure out. Maybe he was nobody, like her. As tall as a Swede, and quite good-looking, he resembled poor, sad, dead Leslie Howard with his tidy crown of blonde curls and high forehead. And he’d been generous to her on one occasion.
That incident had taken place the first day he came into the restaurant, and what he’d given the girl was a welcome conversation. He said he thought her English accent made her sound scholarly and stylish, though she hadn’t been in a schoolroom since 1940. That was almost six years ago. She was now eighteen and under the impression that her once proper accent had gone flat after years of being ground into the earth by a horde of coarse-mouthed Yanks inside the walls of Santo Tomas. She knew she wasn’t stylish, didn’t look like much, but it was nice of him to say. The man then asked her what she liked to do with her free time, which made her heart bounce, though she didn’t think he was getting fresh. She explained that she liked to go to the movies on Sundays, her day off, or walk down to the Fillmore neighborhood after work to listen to Negro Jazz bands go crazy in the night. She admitted she was a pianist herself, and he nodded with high opinion, suggesting they might go out some time to do one or two of those things she liked to do. The girl thought she’d like to go to the man’s apartment with him, if he ever asked her, but nothing had come of his apparent teasing, and he’d never talked to her again, other than to make his daily order.
Now he waved an arm over his head as if he were drowning. She hoped there wasn’t anything wrong with the veal.
She hurried to his table.
“Is there a problem?”
“I want to talk to you.”
“There’s nothing left to tell.”
“Just listen.” He smiled again, and she listened. “Saturday evening, this Saturday, the 22nd, there’s a Christmas party for the employees of the engineering firm where I work. It’s usually quite an evening.” He looked at her hands, which were clasped in a knot over her pelvis. “I was wondering if you might like to go with me. As my date.”
“Why me?” He was a good ten years older. She knew she was thin, shapeless.
“Look, I’m not much for parties, but the guys have been brow-beating me all week. I’m not seeing anybody right now. I need a date. You seem like a lively girl. Why not?”
“What time is the party? Mind you, I work until ten on Saturday.”
“People should be pretty high by then, but it’ll go half the night. Ten’s fine. Shall I pick you up? Where do you live?”
“I live right here. Upstairs, but I’m not allowed to let anyone in after we close. I’ll meet you on the sidewalk.”
The man nodded while the girl stood frozen in place. It was the first time after seven months in the city that a man had asked her out on a proper date. The men at the clubs where she drank beer and tossed her head in time to the music didn’t count. They just wanted to take her straight to bed, hungry for a good girl out of her environment. This man wanted to spend an entire evening with her. Was he mad?
“What’s your name?” He smiled again, making a riot in her heart.
“Maggie Bates,” she said, sticking out her hand.
“Richard Carlson,” said the man, gathering her fingers in a gentle grip. “May I have the check?”
Richard arrived by taxi the following Saturday, promptly at ten. Maggie waited at the curb, nervous in a borrowed red dress and unpracticed makeup. Mrs. Bragana, the owner of the restaurant, had helped the girl arrange her lifeless copper hair into a surprising pile on the top of her head.
“Don’t you have a purse?” Richard raised an eyebrow as his date climbed into the cab.
“Will I need money?” Maggie had learned to keep anything of value in her pockets, to be fought for if someone ever tried to take it from her. She rarely went out with more than the price of a movie and a Coca Cola. Men paid for her beer and smokes at the Club Alabam or the Texas Playhouse. Strangers didn’t scare her much. Other than a key to the restaurant door safety-pinned to the inside of her brassiere, Richard wouldn’t find anything he could use on her dead body, if that was his plan for the evening.
During the rollercoaster ride over hard, glittering hills, Maggie smoked her last two cigarettes, watching Richard out of the corner of her eye as he prattled on about the passing landmarks.
“Mrs. Bragana asked me why a handsome man like you doesn’t have a girlfriend or wife to take to the party. I told her to mind her own business.”
Richard smiled, but stopped talking.
The taxi stopped in front of a Victorian row house near a marina, one of many similar structures built in steps up a gradually inclining street. Light from the house roared onto the sidewalk along with shrill voices and dance band music from a radio or turntable. A sour sea-breeze urged the couple up the high wooden steps to a covered porch.
Inside the open doorway, a giddy pack of men had ambushed a woman as she stepped into the house, squarely under a sprig of mistletoe. The woman under attack was at least forty, and allowed herself to be kissed in turn as Maggie and Richard waited on the threshold. After being waved inside Maggie stood rigidly in position as one oily-haired stranger after another tried to push his tongue into her mouth. The confrontation made her a little sick in her stomach.
Richard, not taking part in the exhibition, rescued his date when she began to grow a little cross. Maggie gaped at him as he led her down a hallway thick with paintings, leafy plants, and heavy oriental rugs. Was there something wrong? She would have happily let him kiss her.
He stopped to re-pin a loose strand of her hair. “I’m sorry you had to run the gauntlet like that.”
“I’ve had worse.”
“You’re a funny girl.”
“Let’s find you a cocktail,” said Richard, tugging at her arm.
A large man with a patchwork of grafted skin pulled tight across his lower face, neck, and hands fabricated cocktails in the bustling kitchen. Wearing a white cotton apron, he worked at a chopping block island, surrounded by thirsty partiers. An army of varied bottles stood at attention, but the preferred cocktail that evening seemed to be the Whiskey Sour. Maggie, accustomed to the inexpensive Lucky Lager offered as a lure at the clubs, had never tasted a fancy cocktail. She was too young to order hard drinks for herself, and would never waste her own money on such things. The people around her laughed and swayed as they drank, not a care in the world. The men were all good-looking. It was like being in a movie. The room was full of the smell of lemons, and fresh lemons always made Maggie feel happy and healthy. She readily agreed to a Whiskey Sour, marveling at the ratio of bourbon to lemon juice. The scarred barman poured a dollop of clear syrup into the mixture before shaking up her special allotment. The first gulp ignited a fire in her stomach. After another swallow, Maggie smacked her lips at the sweet tartness, tossing an approving nod to the manufacturer, suddenly very excited to be with well-to-do people, successful adults with fine jobs and big plans, enjoying life for a bit as a grown-up herself in a lovely city at the edge of a vast, astonishing country.
While licking at the rim of her glass, wondering where the fruit had come from at this time of year, Maggie slipped her arm through Richard’s. She could tell by the gentle pressure that it pleased him.
Cheerful flames danced in the living-room fireplace. Trays of cookies, fruitcake, and caramels winked from satin-covered card-tables. A perfectly tapered tree stood in the corner, covered in glass balls, popcorn strings, and peppermint sticks. Sparkling strands of tinsel hung from the ceiling. Maggie thought of icicles when she looked up, sipping her cocktail, recalling her father’s long-ago promise of a Dickensian winter holiday in England, before the war. She’d never seen snowfall. She’d never been to England. Shaking her glass, listening to the pretty tinkle of ice, she looked around the room, content to be where she was right then.
Richard introduced Maggie to tipsy men with names like Pratt, Dingle, and Blotto, but she had no intention of remembering anyone. She knew no one would remember her.
A woman staggered into a card-table at one point, clutching the tablecloth and pulling an array of cookies onto the floor before joining them. People laughed as the woman struggled to get up. One man kept her down by putting his foot on her bottom. The band music was eventually turned off as a tall man with a heavy beard sat down at a piano to lead them through a round of Christmas carols. Maggie, fighting an urge to smash the keyboard cover onto his clumsy fingers, sang along with the others, putting the sour notes out of her mind while she drank.
As night turned to early morning, Maggie left Richard’s side every twenty minutes to return to the crowded kitchen for another cocktail. She waited at the side of the wooden butcher block, men lurching against her, crowding her while they joked with friends. She was the youngest female in the house. Perhaps the most innocent. She’d caught gentlemen up to age sixty staring at her long neck and smooth flesh. The women stared just as hard, gathering in small gangs, whispering, their lipstick vivid on flared lips. Many of the women were drunk, and looked at Maggie as if they already knew something horrible about her.
At one point, in front of the fire, a large group began to share war stories. Not all the men had served, but there was much boasting about who had fought where and how bad it had been. Maggie blurted out during a lull in the competition that she’d been a prisoner for three years in Manila. Immediately a woman asked if she’d been raped by Jap soldiers, and the room grew very quiet, very warm. This was the first question people asked when they heard she’d come out of the war in the Far East. Maggie was tired of answering it. After a moment, she replied that she’d never been raped, and the focus of the crowd shifted to other topics of conversation, no one interested in all the things that had been done to her.
Richard settled into a round of good-natured jousting with his workmates. They began to complain about a particular engineering project the company was embroiled in, overusing terms like groyne, backfill, and screwpile. Suddenly bored with men, and tired of the flaunted jewels and powerful perfume rising off their high-heeled wives or girlfriends, Maggie developed an urgent curiosity about the house, detaching herself from Richard’s arm to float down the long central hallway on her flat soles.
Various rooms grew off this inner trunk. Maggie stopped first in the study, where she’d thrown her jacket upon arrival. In the corner of the small room, a leather couch was buried under a mound of furs and elegant winter dress coats. Enough light came from the hall so Maggie could choose a sable jacket from the pile, pulling it on over her dress. It was silk-lined, and it fit her well. The fur was soft in her fingers, the texture not unlike her own hair. There was no mirror in the room, but she liked the way she thought she looked. She could smell the woman and the animal together around her shoulders, and it made her tingle to feel them both so close to her own skin. A silver-clad cigarette lighter and a half pack of Chesterfields filled one of the inner pockets. Without thinking much, she dropped them both into the side pocket of her dress before tossing the jacket back onto the pile.
The next room down the hall was a bedroom. The door had been closed when she found it. After poking her head inside, she made out the bed in the dim light. She glanced down the hall, then entered the room, shutting the door with a soft click. After settling onto the high bed, spreading her arms to feel the tufted chenille pattern under her palms, she could tell that a woman lived in the house. After looking through the dresser drawers, feeling the thin silk of the woman’s undergarments and stockings, she stood at the window for a bit, watching the clouds interact with the moon.
To the side of the bedroom, Maggie found a private bath. The door was open a crack, the space inside faintly illuminated by a small nightlight. Maggie entered and closed the door, turning the lock. She lit a cigarette, cracking the window a few inches. After turning on the light and pushing some of her hair around in front of the mirror, she opened the medicine cabinet. A bottle of aspirin stood on the top shelf. She emptied a dozen tablets into her hand, chewing one bitter pill before dropping the remainder into her skirt pocket. A plain box on the middle shelf drew her attention. She opened it to discover a supply of prophylactics. Two of them went into the button pocket of her blouse.
The sound of approaching footsteps gave Maggie a start. Someone rapped on the door. Maggie lifted the heavy lid of the toilet tank and dropped her cigarette into the water.
“This is a private bathroom,” said a muffled female. Annoyed.
“I’m sorry, honey,” said Maggie, using her American accent. “I didn’t see another one.”
“I don’t know how you missed it. It’s right there in the hallway. The door is open and the light is on.” The woman’s voice faded as she walked away. “If you’re being sick in there, please don’t wipe your mouth on my towels.”
“Where did you find her?”
Maggie’s ears strained toward a group of men clustered on the opposite side of the Christmas tree.
“Who? Oh. We’ve been going out for six months.” It was Richard who answered.
An older fellow spoke next, his hand on Richard’s back as he leaned in to question him. “Did you pluck her from a playground?”
“What? What do you mean by that?”
“Good Heavens, man, she’s fifteen, if a day.”
Maggie moved more deeply into the tree.
“Oh, she’s older than that.”
“How old is she, Richard?” another asked. “Has she got any hair on her yet?” A few men chuckled at the joke.
Richard took a long drink. Maggie felt a twinge of pity for him, for his not having asked or even considered such a thing as the age of the girl he was supposed to be dating. She watched the coming lie begin to press down on him, making his eye twitch a little, like a mouse caught behind the kitchen stove by a crowd of mischievous cats.
“Easy, Richard.” A tall fellow patted his back. “No one’s going to call the cops.”
“She’s twenty, Vince.” Richard took another swallow of his cocktail as the men around him snorted with disbelief.
The bearded pianist, introduced at some point simply as Wheeler, lurched unsteadily toward Richard, his finger aiming for the man’s nose but finding his upper lip instead. He chuckled at what he was about to say, then said it.
“You claim she’s a girl, but I think she’s built more like a boy, as if you hadn’t noticed.”
Maggie reddened at the additional insult. She was eighteen and very aware that her chest had not filled out. A quarter cup of rice a day would do that to a growing child. She was a girl. She had breasts. Men had gripped them.
With a deep breath, Maggie came around the tree, making a display of discovering Richard.
“There’s my man,” she declared with the earthy gusto of Rita Hayworth, putting her arms around Richard’s middle while snuggling into his chest. “I’m beat to my socks, honey. Take me home to your cozy apartment. I want to curl up in that big bed of yours and not crawl out until Spring.”
The uproarious laughter which followed her performance caused her brow to wrinkle. She pulled away from Richard, who looked down at her, a sad smile on his face. The room became a very quiet place, the crowd waiting for his response. Maggie turned, trying to comprehend the rosy faces around her, but much of the space was out of focus. Everyone seemed to be staring at her, the women with their mouths open.
Richard touched her hair.
“I live in a house with my mother. But thanks for trying.”
The crowd roared again. Trying? Maggie couldn’t understand why that was funny, and stumbled over a chair as she dashed through the swinging kitchen door.
The scarred barman waited for duty at the butcher-block island in the center of the room. He and Maggie were alone for a change, and she felt contented in the warm kitchen refuge, with its sanitary white tile and red linoleum floor. It was like an abattoir, she thought. With whiskey sours. She laughed out loud at the juxtaposition.
Through a window over the sink, a bit of downtown flickered in the distance, around the edge of a hill. Maggie tried to orient herself toward home, but didn’t know where that was. Her small room waited over that way, somewhere in the lights. She knew that much. Maybe Richard would take her to a hotel before dawn, let her drowse like a baby in a big bed after doing what he needed to do to her. But she knew he wouldn’t. It was over. She had humiliated him somehow and he would never be anything to her.
Maggie noticed a door to the back porch. She looked through the window again. Steps traveled down to a small backyard where a gate led to the street.
Could she find her way back to the restaurant?
“Oh, barman, Sir? May I go out to the porch?” She was ready to run all night.
“Why don’t you stay inside with me, sweetheart? Have another drink. My name’s Eddie.”
Maggie drifted to the edge of the island, soon rapt as the patchwork hands split fruit with a small bone-handled knife. She licked her lips as Eddie ground the lemon halves against the juicer, turning her pale gaze onto the quilt of skin which made up his cheeks, wanting to hold his chin in her hand and whisper that he was lucky to have his eyes.
He returned the keen study as he finished. “You’re awful cute with those little girl freckles. How ‘bout we go back to my place for a private party. I’ll pour some whiskey in your bellybutton. Then we’ll see what happens.”
Maggie felt a rush of heat on her neck.
“No, thank you. I have a date. I’m going home with him in case you don’t understand how these arrangements work.”
“That drip? I bet he don’t know which end of you is which, and what for.”
Eddie handled the shaker in a manner Maggie thought quite suggestive, then poured the contents into a dirty lowball glass. He was drunk, too, or maybe it was she who tipped the tumbler so haphazardly that some of the tepid contents soaked her hand. While Eddie watched her, Maggie sucked the whiskey off her sticky fingers, one by one, staring back at him with cloudy blue eyes.
“You little bitch.”
Maggie drained the glass. Her skin prickled. The room began to fluctuate. Richard had been sweet to her under the tinsel, touching her hair and allowing her to be foolish in front of everyone. He could fill her bellybutton with whiskey in the big bed, in the posh hotel. She would even open her eyes for him.
Eddie stared at her, a wicked smile on his lips. Maggie didn’t like it.
“I heard you out there. I bet the Japs done you over.” He held up his fist, his pinky extended. “I bet you like them little monkeys.”
She raised her eyebrows.
“No Jap ever touched me, Eddie, old boy, except to slap my face for not bowing down in the street. As to being done over, as you like to call it, yes, I was raped for a few hours once, if that makes you happy, but it was by American soldiers, my liberators. After three years in that bloody camp, I guess it was my way of thanking them.”
“Don’t blame me, girlie. I done my stretch in Europe.” He winked. “And you made out better’n them Jews I saw.”
Maggie bit her lower lip to keep herself from spitting at the man. Yes, she had lived in better conditions than the Jews in their Nazi camps. She’d been told the very thing a thousand times. She was about to explain to ignorant Eddie that being starved slowly to death was not necessarily a better fate than being gassed or shot, when Richard burst through the swinging door, followed by his friend, Vince.
“Look, man, I don’t care what you are,” said Vince as he grabbed Richard’s shoulder.
Bearded Wheeler came next through the door, bellowing like a cow.
“This town is getting to be rotten with guys like you, and I’m sick of it. Do you hear me? Sick of it. Why’s the Army gotta discharge all their head cases here in my home town, for Christ’s sake? I’m sick of looking at them on the street. Sick of them looking at me.” Wheeler turned to Maggie. “And you’re no better, young lady. Where’d Dickie pick you up? Down on Pacific Avenue?”
Eddie pushed past Maggie to confront Richard.
“I knew it. I knew the minute you walked in here, you gutless three-letter shit-heel.” Weaving on shaky legs, he laughed. “And your whore here thinks she’s gonna earn five bucks later.”
“Please don’t call her that.” Richard’s voice quavered.
“Take it easy, Eddie,” Vince demanded, stepping in front of the angry barman, who was now pointing his finger into Richard’s face.
“We threw a couple a you guys off the fantail of our transport one night. Never even heard ‘em hit the water.”
Richard was now very red in the face.
“What have I ever done to you?” he asked.
Eddie punched Richard in the teeth, knocking him to the floor.
Maggie picked up the lemon-cutting knife and drove it deep into the thigh of scar-faced Eddie as he brought his other leg back to kick her friend. Blood erupted onto her hand as the barman buckled, screaming as he fell onto his back. Maggie jammed the knife into the butcher block. Grabbing a halved lemon, she squatted over Eddie, squeezing the juice into his eyes.
More men now pushed into the room. They were nearly on top of each other as they stared in disbelief.
“Some party!” one shouted.
“Make a tourniquet!”
“Call an ambulance!”
Richard sat in the middle of the room, his head in his hands, a cut lip turning purple. Wheeler gaped at the blood dripping from Maggie’s fingers. Standing by the sink now, out of the way, she looked back at him, wanting to explain just how bad a piano player he was. There was more blood on the floor. Eddie whimpered like a puppy. Maggie watched as someone looped a belt around his thigh. Soldiers knew what to do.
Vince helped Richard to his feet. “Get your hired-girl out of here.”
They walked a mile before a taxi stopped. Maggie tried to reach Richard with apology after they darted out of the kitchen door, pleading with him to forgive her as they stumbled down the shadowy porch steps, dancing in front of him to get his attention as they crossed the tiny yard to the gate, yelping his name repeatedly, explaining that she always made a mess of things, that he was her only friend, that she just wanted to matter to someone.
The only verbal acknowledgement Richard made was to shout at Maggie to keep still, which made her fall to her knees on the sidewalk, shivering, her hair finally falling apart. After lifting the girl to her feet, Richard buttoned his suit jacket around her shoulders, her threadbare coat still on the pile in the front room of a house she could never go back to. He rubbed her arms to warm them.
Richard was just as silent after entering the cab as he had been during their flight. He looked out the window at nothing, chewing his tongue.
Maggie’s head began to pound like one of the big artillery pieces set up in an open space at Santo Tomas, after liberation, exploding in white, aching thoughts. Her stomach roiled in response as the taxi flew over the hills, the streets now empty. She rolled her forehead through the condensation her agony had spread across the window.
“Why did he hit you?” she asked. “Can you at least tell me that?”
“He had his reasons.”
Maggie swallowed a thick pool of spit.
“Whatever they were, I didn’t want them to be true.” She gulped. “I’m going to be sick now.”
The cab slowed to the curb. Maggie opened the door, tipping her head down to retch into the gutter. Richard laid his handkerchief on her knee after she pulled herself upright, the muscles in her face pulled tight. After a minute of dull meter clicking, the driver pulled away.
Her head now felt like a towel being wrung out. The thin skin of her eyelids could barely contain her swelling eyeballs. They would explode against the windshield. She turned to Richard without opening her eyes.
“Take me somewhere. Please. A hotel with a big bed. You can do anything you want to me.” Her stomach swayed. The cab was moving too fast again.
“Don’t talk like you’re trash,” said Richard.
Maggie trembled as the cab lurched to a stop in front of the Bella Rosa. She gripped Richard’s knee, shouting foolishly.
“I don’t want to go back to prison!”
“For God’s sake!” Twisting away from Maggie’s hand, Richard removed his wallet from a back pocket. “Look. I’ll say I found you on Pacific Avenue. And that I took you back there when we were finished. That’s all I can do.” He opened the wallet. “This is for being a good sport.”
Maggie grabbed the ten-dollar bill he offered her, crumpling it into a damp ball. Richard then held out his hand, motioning with his upturned fingers as if for her to come closer. Maggie worried for a second that she was going to have to do something repulsive to Richard in the back of the cab. She inched closer, her eyes trying to read the cabbie’s broad back.
Maggie touched her chest, stroking the strange fabric.
“Oh. Of course.” After fumbling with the buttons, she wriggled herself free and laid the suit jacket onto Richard’s knees. He must have been shivering in his shirt and tie. The brisk air on her neck did not make her feel any more settled in her stomach, and she nearly fell backwards out of the cab when she opened the door. While steadying herself on the sidewalk to say goodbye, the cab grumbled away. As Richard disappeared, a man whistled from a nearby shadow, making Maggie bolt for the familiar door of the restaurant, ripping at the buttons of her blouse, tearing the key away from her brassiere. After letting herself into the hushed dining room, she slammed the heavy door behind her, locking herself in.
The police didn’t come for her the next day, or any day after that. Richard never returned to the restaurant for his plate of veal. Maggie occasionally wondered what his friends had done to him, if he’d been cast over the fantail into the sea. Sometimes she felt like that, like flotsam adrift on the rounding swell.
— Russell Thayer’s work has appeared in The Phoenix, Evening Street Review, Cirque, Close to the Bone, Bristol Noir, APOCALYPSE CONFIDENTIAL, Hawaii Pacific Review, Shotgun Honey, Punk Noir, Pulp Modern, and Tough. He received his BA in English from the University of Washington, worked for decades at large printing companies, and currently lives in Missoula, Montana. You can find him lurking on Twitter @RussellThayer10