Long Before I Grew Used to Strange Men
He appeared among us one cool October, long before I grew used to strange men. No one saw him enter. Somehow he managed to slip through the door with enough grace or cunning that the old horse bell looped to its handle never even had a chance to ring. He took the stool next to the cash register and fixed his gaze on our mother. He said he wanted a cheese sandwich and an unsweetened iced tea.
For several hard moments, we watched him. The hair that snaked down his neck and curled around a torn-up collar. The bones that poked out of his cheeks like blades. At last our mother tightened her apron. “Sorry mister, but this is a place of business. We don’t just go giving handouts.”
“My dear Beverly.” The man rolled her name around in his mouth as if savoring a rare pleasure. “I’m afraid you’ve made a terrible mistake.”
With a cryptic smile, he reached in his pocket and unfisted a riot of coins onto the counter where it came to rest in a small, lifeless mound.
Our mother searched the man’s face, uneasy. His eyes shone wet, as though he possessed some secret knowledge about her and from the way his lips kinked up at the edges, he appeared to be suppressing a laugh. You could see her trying to recall if she’d ever served him, but then her hand fluttered across the nametag pinned to her bosom. Just like that, our mother hardened herself once more. She scrawled his order, clipped it to the ticket stand, and gave the wheel a grudging spin.
My little brother Nate and I studied the man from the booth by the front window. How he wrapped his sooty claws around the soft white bread and ate his own black fingerprints. How his worn field jacket hung from his back like a cape. Mud and tickseed burrs covered his combat boots, so that they were almost unrecognizable, and the same coppery sludge was splattered across his fatigues in a funny pattern that almost seemed to be moving if you looked at it right. Clearly he’d been caught in one of the brutal thunderstorms our little village suffered each autumn, but something about the man’s spectral appearance suggested his troubles ran deeper than that. As though he’d read my mind, he glanced over his shoulder and gave me a grim nod of agreement. Even now the look in his eyes remains branded into my memory, along with the whiff of decay that had begun to float through the room.
This, you see, was a good twenty years ago, in the tiny weather-beaten cafe that clung to the side of our mountain, surrounded by purple thistles, goldenrod, stinging nettles, and of course, an endless maze of trees. A narrow road, hacked out by our ancestors, linked the cafe with the string of rundown houses perched above us, as well as the ailing mill below. Everyone in Dunnwood relied on that mill in one form or another and although its official death knell hadn’t yet sounded, we knew it wasn’t long for this world. All around us, customers stared bleary-eyed into the distance, fighting off visions of loss and ruin. Even for someone as hard-hearted as I liked to consider myself, it was a depressing sight.
My little brother groped for my hand under the table. His fingers seized on mine with a startling urgency and I turned to see him peering up at me, round-eyed and fretful. In the artificial light of the diner, he looked even more delicate than usual, and you could make out the lilac vein traversing his forehead. I knew better than to tease him in such moments, but a ribbon of wickedness, as our mother put it, had wound its way through me ever since I was a baby. Nate was only four and a half at the time. I was twelve.
I leaned down and told my brother that the man at the counter wasn’t just any old drifter. “You look close enough, you can see there’s something mysterious about him. Spooky, even.”
Nate’s eyes met mine in a flash of understanding. “A ghost?”
I nodded, and together we turned to stare at the stranger. Though he still had his back to us, he had turned to gaze out the side window so that we could see his profile: sloping forehead, patrician nose, pointed jaw that revealed an over-bite. There was something elegant about his silhouette, I realized, something regal, as though he might possess an ancient strain of royalty somewhere in his bloodline. Just as I was running the names of old Shakespearean monarchs in my head––the phantom, the murderer, the lunatic father––the clouds outside shifted and a spindle of light needled in and fanned out around the man at the counter. My brother inhaled, a quick rasping. Even I found myself swallowing hard.
Moments later, our mother’s shadow fell across our table. “Roberta, I’ll give you to the count of ten.”
Across the room, plates began to pile up in the window. Salads wilting under the heat lamp, eggs congealing. Gravies thickening and forming repulsive skins. Our mother was the only waitress scheduled once the lunch rush ended and even though she’d been working in restaurants forever, it didn’t take much for her to get in the weeds. While she loomed before me ticking off numbers, the cook gave his bell a threatening whack with his spatula. “You might want to shake that tail of yours,” he told her.
One of her perverted regulars eagerly rattled the ice in his glass.
Our mother’s face began to simmer with anger. Anyone could see she wanted nothing more than to rip off her apron and bid farewell to this cursed asylum––or else maybe grind a fork in somebody’s eye. Instead, with a savage toss of her tightly-wrapped rump (which she boasted earned her an extra hundred bucks a month in tips), she whirled around, strode through the room, and thrust a check at the stranger slumped at the counter as if he were to blame for all the misery she’d ever suffered. He didn’t even look up.
At supper that night, our mother’s spirits continued to smolder. You could tell by the slippery red dress she’d worn to the table, the dangerous-looking stilettos she’d strapped to her feet. The merry tune she insisted on humming, even as she kept her eyes fixed hard on her plate. Our father watched her with foolish excitement. He thought his luck had finally changed. But already I knew he was in for it. Our mother loved to torment him with what he could no longer have.
“I know who that man was,” Nate said. He held a lima bean out to our mother. “I know who that man was who came in today.”
Our mother ignored him and hummed even louder.
Our father smiled.
“What man, son?”
My brother hesitated. “No one.” Slowly he withdrew his unwanted bean.
Even back then, we knew our father’s smile was not to be trusted, that more often than not it hid something disturbing: a sheet thrown over a gruesome sight. He turned and aimed his unhappy grin at our mother. “What man’s he talking about, sweetheart? Who’s chatting you up this time?”
“No one, sweetheart. No one said a single word. I take everyone’s order by reading their mind.”
“Mind reading,” our father said. “That what they’re calling it?”
“Give it a rest,” said our mother. “I had a long day.”
“You had a long day. What kind you think I had?”
“I can’t imagine, dear. Why don’t you tell us all about it? I’m sure it’ll be fascinating.”
“Don’t act smart,” our father said. “Don’t go acting smart with me.”
“Funny, the way I see it, I’m an idiot. One of the biggest idiots I know.” Our mother started humming again, as if this were the sort of thing idiots liked to do.
Still, her harsh little melody seemed to bring a measure of comfort to our father, as though it were a familiar lullaby that reminded him of a happier time, and it wasn’t long before his awful grin faded and his hands quit trembling and he began to eye our mother with a wistful gaze. The dark curls that sprang from her head, thick and glossy. The red wax she’d painted onto her lips. His eyes traveled to her shoulder, the bare skin gleaming. He gave his teeth a vulgar suck.
As for me, my mind drifted back to the man at the counter. To my surprise, the memory of him seemed to be rapidly dissolving, like when you are startled awake from a feverish slumber and try to recall your dream. Everything felt shrouded in a gauzy phosphorescence––no, that’s not it exactly––it’s more like I was the one who was shrouded and it was up to me to claw my way out of the haze. I turned to Nate. “By the way, that man was nobody special. Just some crazy old tramp that wandered in out of nowhere.”
From the stricken look my brother gave me, you’d have thought he had been betrayed. “What’s a tramp?” he said. He gave his bean a mournful lick.
Before I could answer, our father broke in. “Why don’t you ask your mother to tell you what a tramp is?”
Even my little brother knew he’d better not.After supper, I hurried outside and tucked myself in a mound of leaves at the rear of our property. Autumn had snuck up on us early that year and the trees were almost free of their red and gold trappings. Soon they’d be naked and brown. I was glad. Things seemed more honest that way. At least Nature dared admit what everyone else was unwilling to say.
Still, it wasn’t long before the old panicky feelings began to run their fingers up and down my spine, and in an effort to stave off their advances I waved my arms and kicked my legs and watched as the leaves swirled in circles above me before tumbling, helpless, back to earth.
After that, I just sat there and hugged my knees to my chest, even though I knew harvest mites thrived in tree litter. The air swam before me, thick and filmy. All around, the jagged shapes of scrub pines stood out sharp against the purplish sky. The red bats that hung from those trees during the day, disguised as pinecones, raged through the air in murderous loops, gorging themselves on beetles and moths.
At last I began to itch from the insects burrowing their way into my flesh and I hauled myself out of the leaves, stripped off my shoes and socks, and clawed at the fiery welts on my ankles. A pair of yellow eyes watched from the low branch of a dogwood. Then came a swift flapping of wings and the eyes were gone.
When I went back inside to join Nate, I found our mother hunched on the couch, a plaid hide-a-bed that no longer opened, gripping an orange baking soda box between her knees. She was counting out dollar bills. Every evening, she stashed part of her tips in this orange box and hid the box in the back of the refrigerator. No thief would ever think to look in that beat-up contraption, and if he did, he’d just find a few tired sacks of vegetables, some no-name groceries, and a box of soda meant to deodorize our food. Even our father hadn’t discovered her secret. The only flaw in her scheme, as I saw it, was that our fridge gave off a telltale stink.
I tiptoed past her, still barefoot, hoping to get through the room unseen.
“Freeze,” she said, without looking up.
My eyes fixed on the advertising calendar tacked to the wall. It was the wrong year and month, as it had been for some time, but for whatever reason, our mother liked the picture: a photograph of a woman who resembled some sort of fossilized goblin, costumed in a feedsack dress and black oily boots riddled with holes. “Don’t let this happen to you,” the caption read. “Buy Worther’s Insurance Today!” But it was the woman’s face that always got me. The hard mouth, the flaring nostrils. The skin that hung from her bones in mottled grey folds. The haunted eyes that stared right through you, as though you didn’t even exist.
Raised on superstitions and what we used to call granny magic, our father viewed the picture with a curious mix of respect and loathing. He claimed it tempted bad fortune to visit our house. This made our mother laugh. To her, both the calendar and the man she’d married were all part of the same big, miserable joke.
“Wake up.” She snapped her fingers. “I’m talking to you.”
With effort I roused myself from my dream.
“Don’t you get in bed with those filthy feet. Wash them good in the tub first. And while you’re at it, wash your brother’s too.”
A week later, the stranger returned. He was wearing the same nightmare of clothes as the last time he came into the luncheonette, and criss-crosses of red marked one of his cheeks as if he’d just crawled out of a bed of pine needles. The smells of mildewed cotton and rotting teeth floated after him as he made his way toward the stool by the register. Nate and I covered our noses as discreetly as possible. Our mother picked up a menu and fanned the air in disgust.
“The tramp,” my brother said under his breath.
“I’m not taking your greasy old nickels and dimes today,” our mother said. “You best find someplace else to get rid of them.”
But the man acted like he didn’t hear what she’d said. He pulled a bill from his pocket, smoothed it out on the counter, and slid it toward her.
For several long moments, she peered at the money. She held it up to the light. Slowly the twisted smile she reserved for our father worked its way across her face. It was a twenty-dollar bill.
“Well, then. What can I get you?” The tone of her voice was different now. Silkier. Inviting, almost. Yet still with that cold, scornful edge.
“A cheese sandwich and an unsweetened iced tea, please.”
“Sure you don’t want to try our sweet tea?” She rested her hand on a vat of sugary brown liquid. “I make it myself every morning.”
“No thank you, Beverly. I prefer the other.”
Our mother ran her eyes over him, trying to gauge whether or not she’d been insulted. “Each his own,” she said. She pulled a green pitcher out from under the counter and leaned over low to fill his glass.
I leaned over my homework and tried to focus. Lately I’d been getting in trouble in school for what you might call discipline issues. Also, I kept failing math. It wasn’t as though I didn’t understand the concepts––I did. But somehow I kept reversing numbers, so that no matter how many times I cross-checked the problems, my answers always ended up wrong. This was why I had to go straight to the luncheonette after school to study until our mother got off work. Nate had to come with me because he was too little to stay home alone.
“Soon as you prove you’re the smart kid I know you are,” she often told me, “you and your brother won’t have to sit cooped up in this dump. ‘Til then, I’m keeping my eye on you.”
It’s not like our mother was any kind of math wizard. At least twice a week, a customer would point out that she’d given him the wrong change. She’d apologize and hand him the missing dollar or two. Once, she gave me a warning look as she withdrew a bill from her apron. As if to say, no matter what happens, don’t end up like me.
When she made the wrong change for the tramp, he was very gracious about it. “I understand. It could happen to anyone.”
“It was an honest mistake,” our mother said, as though she were the one who’d almost been ripped off.
“Of course, Beverly.” He gave her a knowing smile. He stood, tucked two dollars under his glass, and lifted an imaginary hat, before walking out the door.
Soon the tramp became a regular. Every Friday afternoon, he’d trudge into the luncheonette, slide onto the same cracked red leather stool, and order a cheese sandwich and an unsweetened iced tea. He always paid with a crisp twenty. He always left a two-dollar tip. Two dollars for what was at most a five-dollar ticket. Even a terrible math student like me knew that was a lot.
Even so, as time passed, the man grew filthier. His hair matted up into ropey vines that stretched past his shoulders. His field jacket disintegrated into rags. The smell, never good to begin with, at least never grew worse, and even seemed to vary, as if some nights he slept on horse blankets and others on onionweed. Where was he getting his money? Twenty-dollar bills weren’t exactly abundant in Dunnwood. The only industry we had was our struggling textile mill and a bit of timber. The families whose men were fortunate enough to pick up extra work as lumberjacks could afford to live in the decent part of town below. Not us. We belonged to the unlucky clot of families marooned on top of our ancient mountain, said to have once rivaled the Andes in height. Now all that remained of our former wonder was a low, eroded mound of soil.
Our father worked at the mill as a Dye Department Material Handler, which meant he hauled bleached rags and coils of braid to and from the sewing room. For this he received a dollar and a half over minimum wage, plus a hot lunch at the employee cafeteria. But even that job was a good twenty minutes away, what with all the hairpin turns, and surely the tramp had no car. A walk was impossible. Where could he possibly have been working? And who would have hired him?
And where did he sleep? Winter was headed straight for us. Every day, the ground grew harder. The sun turned cold and sputtered out by five. The bats were already hibernating in the abandoned mines nearby and even the lumberjacks had stopped for the year. Only their ruins remained, the hacked off limbs and raw tree stumps, some of them still oozing a dark, sticky sap.
There were a number of old barns and chicken coops where the tramp could have foxholed. With the view no longer hidden by leaves, you could see the forlorn structures rising up out of the land. Often I would climb on top of our well, which was covered by a warped square of green linoleum, and look out at the sagging hills that surrounded us, the soot-covered rooftops, the tufts of grass that would soon be buried by snow, and wonder where the tramp was.
Along with the landscape, our mother was changing. She seemed calmer somehow, yet also remote, as though she too had retreated to her own private foxhole even if she were standing right over you, spooning stewed chicken onto your plate. Our father couldn’t get her riled up no matter how hard he tried. Once, he came to supper wearing nothing but our mother’s furry pink bathrobe and his old M1 helmet, which he’d smuggled out of Vietnam. Some sicko had scrawled the words “Born To Die” on each side in black marker. A disturbing list of names ran down the back.
Still our mother ignored him, humming as always, only now those raggedy notes almost formed a real song. At the end of the meal, when our father plucked a spray of Rabbit Tobacco out of its beer bottle vase and pretended to drink the swampy water inside, our mother gave him a distracted smile and passed him a slice of lemon cake she’d filched from work. This upset him so much, the next day he went out and bought a secondhand TV from The Salvation Army and bolted it high on the kitchen wall. From then on, our father watched cartoons during every meal and chewed his food in silence.
One night, it must have been mid-December, I sat alone at the kitchen table. A sack of winter apples lay collapsed by the pantry, filling the room with a sickly-sweet odor. A green paper pine tree streaked with gold glitter, the handiwork of my brother, hung from the refrigerator catching the light. I was supposed to be studying math, but I could see into the main room through the open door, and as usual, our mother was embroiled in her nightly ritual of stashing tips in her orange baking soda box. By now her wad of bills had grown so fat, it was about all she could do to cram them inside. I eyed her from behind a curtain of hair. She seemed to me, in that moment, to be a wild animal I’d stumbled on in the woods. Were I to move, or even breathe, she might well get spooked and run.
I forced myself to look down at my book. Our class had recently started up with elementary algebra. Unknown numbers. Variables. Roots. They worried me. Not just because I knew they’d cause me to rack up yet another shameful grade on my report card, but because I sensed they marked the approach of some greater danger. A treacherous puzzle I’d be forced to solve.
Of course, I know now that whatever cosmic power happens to be in charge of this sad little planet is unlikely to dole out such warnings––its specialty appears to be a good, brutal surprise. Back then, however, with the cryptic x’s and y’s swirling before me, distorted and blurred and all mixed up with the image of our mother calculating her worth, I possessed a child’s certainty that the world’s fiercest secrets could be yours for the taking, if only you could decipher the code.
The last day of school before winter break, Nate and I sat trapped in the luncheonette as usual, even though for once, I had no homework. It was five minutes before closing, and our mother was hurryin