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.