I WELL remember,” said Miss Peg, the pastry cook, with a coffee éclair hovering in her fingers, “the night I fell into the embrace of the United States Merchant Marine. I weighed scant two hundred eight pounds at that time. I was, you might say, thin as a shelf.”
Probably Miss Peg meant to say “sylph.” In fairness, you had to grant to Miss Peg that she was always willing to risk elegance, if there was any of it handy. Only sometimes her longue slipped —especially if it was all lubricated to receive an éclair or a napoleon.
They wore gathered — Miss Peg, Mrs. Manterbaum, and Johnny the second busboy—in the pantry locker down in the basement. As pastry chef, Miss Peg kept the key to the locker, and late each evening, about eleven o’clock, when the clubhouse was quite deserted and lay black and junky on the Florida beach, like a tremendous shipwreck, she would ghost in through the service entrance to the basement with one or two guests, unlock the wire mesh door to her locker, light up the single bare bulb that hung down from the ceiling, get out a few good things, seat the party on the wooden crates she kept her pans in, and then she would begin to talk. Mrs. Manterbaum, whose job was to keep the cabañas clean, was notorious among the help for her sweet tooth, a regular sugar-thief, and she had worked herself into the position of being invited by Miss Peg almost every night to taste a few “exlra" pastries. Miss Peg used to ask Johnny the second busboy about once a week, because he was good-natured about pushing her pastry cart around to the Big People in the dining room for her. If there was one thing she hated in life, it was cart pushing. That, and bending down to slide her pans in and out of her ovens.
“I was twenty-three,” Miss Peg said, “and I was then doing scullery for a certain Mrs. Charles Saunders in Old Bridge Harbor, on Long Island. Mr. Saunders was in asphalt and, as we used to say, he couldn’t get out. Though in truth he was prosperous. Mrs. Saunders had fourteen in help. I remember one thing about Mr. Saunders, which was, he was very particular about the way his shoes were laid out in the mornings—the laces had in be real loose and the tongues lifted out and bent forward, so ho could more or less walk right into his shoes. If Mr. Saunders had any difficulty about walking into his shoes, any morning, he was liable to a very bad stale of mind at breakfasl, and goodness knew who would feel the shock of it. You understand, I only heard these things. Small Peggety, as they called me the ’Small’ was belittling, you might say, considering my heft — never advanced beyond the Near Pantry, and had no occasion to see Mr. Saunders standing in his own shoes, laced or unlaced. Fact is, the first time I ever laid eyes on him, close by, was the day the United States Merchant Marine and I had our little heave-to.
“It happened in the following particulars. My cousin Bob, who never came across with the rest of us, lives some short distance outside Greenock, by Glasgow, and he being a familiar of certain public houses on the waterfront, travels, you might say,
victoriously — by talking with those who go to sea.”
“Vicariously,” Johnny said.
“I beg your pardon?” Miss Peg said, very grand.
Johnny realized one of the reasons Miss Peg liked him was that he had gone through third year high school and was, in her words, “a bookish lad”; he did read a good bit. Miss Peg had never had any schooling, and her elegance had been picked up over the years of service while she was passing the peas, so to speak. Johnny dared, now and then, to catch her up on some of her errors of overreaching.
“Your cousin Bob,” Johnny said, “travels vicariously.”
“Well?" said Miss Peg, with rising tone, as if to ask why the young scoundrel felt it necessary to repeat something that had already been said. “So one evening,” she went on, “Bob met this tidy, small-boned Yank, a Boatswain’s Mate, Third Class, in the United States Merchant Marine, named Bufano. A swarthy sort. Talking of one big thing and another, they landed at last upon me, so it was necessary—Bob thought — to tell the fellow all about me. I will say, Bob has a straight tongue, he did not dangle any pretty marionette before this Bufano’s eyes. To be blunt about it, he said his cousin Peggety was fat. ‘So much the better,’says this Bufano. ’I always was squeamish about getting myself bruised against sharp and knobby things. I am glad to hear that you have a nice soft cousin.’
“The first thing I knew,” said Peg, “I received a postcard written in a line Eyetalian hand, all curlicues and scrolls on the capitnl letters, like a birthday cake, saying, Meet me outside Ritz corner 46 and Mad six pm Thursday evening. Assume this is helps night out. I have grand news of your cousin Bob from other side. Bufano, Bsns Mate 3/c, S.S. Fanter. This ‘grand news’” — Miss Peg said, leaping ahead in her narrative, as she sometimes did — “was that our Bob was spending much time in the public houses and was a two-hump camel when it came to the ale: he could drink twice as much and hold it twice as long as anyone else. ‘Grand news’!
THE next Thursday,” Miss Peg resumed, “I got myself all frilled up, smelling like a church on Easter morning, and Mason the chauffeur was just about to drive the help to the station, and me, sitting there, taking up half the back seat of the car, happy as a lintie thinking about my unknown sailor boy, when out from the quarters comes a message: ‘Tell Small Peggety to stop by at Mr. Saunders’ office, 30 Rockefeller Plaza. He has a wee errand for her.’
“Our Maggie, the cook, who if I was overweight she was a dried-up apricot of the fuzzy variety, said sarcastic, ‘Write down the address. Our Peggety is in lose, she’s a bag of daydreams, she’ll never remember.'
“Between the message and Maggie, it took quite some time for the others to dill me down to where I was calm again. Wasn’t it just like Mr. Saunders to save his ‘wee errands’ for that day? Any other time, this command would have made me tingle with the fun of doing it — ‘thistles in me thumbs,’as our Mum used to say when she had a thrill. But that day, it was all I could do to think of my seafaring man with the handwriting like Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee fireworks.
“Nevertheless, when we reached the city, I went of course as directed to 30 Rockefeller Plaza and I shot up into the sky where Mr. Saunders did his work and up I went to the lady at the desk and I said, trying to be sort of saucy and mature, ‘I am the Peggety. Mr. Saunders has a wee errand for me.’
“The lady looked at me and said, ‘Sister, aren’t you kind of dressed up for this errand?'
“So I replied, ‘The nature of the work was not divulged, you might say.'
“The lady flicked a switch on a box, and I heard Mr. Saunders’ voice come out of the box, only his voice sounded like his nose had been snipped off by a crow or was pinched with a clothespin; he said, ‘What is it ?’
“‘Your maid,’ the lady said into the box, ‘has come for the carcass.’
“This gave me the goose pimples all over, and since I was a t lumber sort of girl, a large skin area, you might say, there was a considerable amount of puckering up to be got done with.
“Mr. Saunders kind of laughed a noseless laugh from the box and said, ‘Send her in.’
“I walked into the office whither the lady nodded, and there he was, the master, looking very wild, hut with his nose, thank the Lord, quite unharmed. It must have been merely the mechanics of the box that bad taken away bis nose from his voice. In general the master was very wild, however. He was in his shirt-sleeves and he was dressed in a big white apron and he had in his hand a butcher’s knife of the largest sort, and I thought: Oh me, I thought asphalt was used to pave the roads, what can it be that the master does for a living?
“He said to me, ‘Sit down, girl, I’ll be ready in a few minutes.’
“It was then,” Miss Peg said, “that I noticed another gentleman in the room, he was dressed in ordinary business clothes, though his look was rather ferocious, too, it seemed to me, but at the time, you must remember, I was only Small Peggety, twenty-three winters along, tipping the scales approximately two-o-eight, with no experience of the world beyond the Near Pantry, consequently this fierceness may have been imaginary on my part.
“I also noticed — and this hit me all of a sudden, like the sun coming out from under a cloud — a smell in the place like Fulton Street at the East River, in other words, fish in all its glory. And by following my senses, I tracked this scent to Mr. Saunders’ desk, where lay, about as big as my upper arm, no, bigger yet, a whole salmon. A very substantial fish. I can assure you, Mrs. Manterbaum.
“Mr. Saunders grasped the butcher knife in both hands, and he began to stagger and struggle around the room, talking ihe while like that raddio fellow, Mr. Clem McCarthy, dealing with the Derby, in case you are interested in the horses, Mrs. Manterbaum — breathless lie was and yet in command of the telling. I soon puzzled it out that Mr. Saunders was describing to his friend the capture of this particular salmon of his. lie was using the butcher knife for his rod and reel, and 1 was fearful lest he would fish himself into total blindness with that sharp thing. And so we had game-fishing all up and down the office for the next half hour. They say that salmon do go up-river in order to make love, and to hear Mr. Saunders speak of the reluctance of this whopper to leave the headwaters of the Skampnwam, or whatever the river would be named, in Nova Scotia, it was — to hear him, I believe this fish must have been engaged in the romance of the century in the salmon world. Really, the aquarium should be told about it. Well! I tell you! We finally landed the thing, but we were panting and giving off a deal of perspiration over it - and there ihe lecherous rascal was, big as life and ten times smellier, right on Mr. Saunders’ desk, asphalt be damned.
“He’s been thawing out all day,’ Mr. Saunders said. ‘We shipped him down in dry ice. His guts were cleaned up there, and now’—advancing on the salmon with the dreadful knife, he said this: ‘now I’m going to lop off his head and tail so the girl here can manage him by hand and take him out home for us, and tomorrow night, Spencer, tomorrow night! Well, you’ll just have to wait and taste him.’
“Our creature was thawed out, all right, and he gave up his head till there was salmon blood all over the newspapers on Mr. Saunders’ desk. Likewise the tail, a smaller operation but also not without splashes and clots of red. By this time the odor of fish was almost a fog around us that you could see. Whew!
“More newspapers, a bundle, string; there we were. ‘Now, girl,’ said Mr. Saunders, who, never having been on my side of the Near Pantry, of course did not know me by name, ‘now, girl, you may take it home. And have a care!’
“What a care I had, all that suffering night! And yet . . .
“It was now, you see, pushing six o’clock, because of the length of Mr. Saunders’ description of his triumph over the poor hooked thing. Thus, if I was to meet my friend with 1 he birthday-cake handwriting, I would have to rush right over there, with no time to park my bundle meanwhile. Right through the newspaper, through goodness knows how many layers of current events, you could not fail to smell my pink beheaded treat. Trembling I dashed to the Ritz, corner of Madison and Fortysixth.
“I was on time but early. The Merchant Marine, being a man of the world, had decided to have a wee tease of Small Peggety, who knew nothing. So there I stood, before the most swoshy hotel in the land, waiting, with ladies going by in ermine and sapphires and curls right out of the permanent-wave machine, and me, under the marquee with all its sweet little light bulbs, me, embracing a two-anda-half-foot stink. I was mortified to death, Mrs. Manterbaum.
AT LAST he came and worth waiting for. Short, stocky, and sort of pale Moorish-complected. His pants as tight as wedding gloves. He was a lovely, tiny creature. He strolled right up to me, with all the swagger of his cute bowlegs, and he said, raising his while cap, ‘Miss Peggety, if I am not mistaken.
I could have spotted you, my dear, from a mile away.’
“Well, he had my heart right then and there, though now in my calmer years I can see that his first remark — about kenning me from such a very impressive distance—left something to be desired as a compliment.
“Right there on the strectcorner, as he gazed up into mv eyes, looking for my soul, you might say, and my heart like a moth by a sixty-wall lamp, I saw that the flanges of his nostrils were working away quite passionate, exactly like Mr. Rudolph Valentino’s, but then I realized that it wasn’t so much love at first sight as it was he had caught, a whiff of something about my person. What he smelt, you already know, Mrs. Manterbaum.
“I had no doubt, in the next moments, that my Bufano was as packed full of gentility as his bellbottoms were packed full of Bufano. Because without so much as muttering, ’Hm, fishy out tonight, ain’t it, Miss Peggety?’ — with no such remarks, without a flicker of his lovely waxen eyelids, without even moving to windward of me, he said, ‘Well, my dear, what’ll it be? Shall we dance? Or is food your pleasure? A steak, Miss Peggcty?' You see how well bred he was? Steak! Any lesser man would have asked me if I was in the mood for a bite of sea food.
“Timid, I said, ‘First off, Mr. Bufano, I’d like to run down to Grand Central and cheek this pared for the evening.'
“I could see from the way my Bufano looked at the package in my arms that he knew what I was carrying. Jaunty as you please he swung around and offered me the crook of his arm.
“At the checking place in Grand Central, I just pushed the package across the brass-plated counter. The man there pulled it toward him and actually snapped the checking tag onto the string. Then (I guess his nose was tuned in by this time) he looked up and said, ‘What’s in here?'
“Just some laundry,’I said. My Bufano stiffened a little at that. The counterman thumped at the package with his fists, shook his head, unsnapped the tag, and shoved the thing back to me.
“’Sorry, lady,’ the counterman said, ‘we ain’t allowed to accept no carrion here.’
“ I guess my feelings took a t umble that you could see and hear, because liufano said, ‘Cheer up, my dear, we’ll just hurry over to Pennsylvania Station. We should have done that in the first place, “You’ll have to leave from there when our spree is over.’
“But the man in the parcel room at Penn Station was even quicker than our Grand Central fellow. Indeed, he looked at us at first with a dread look of suspicion, as if we were trying to dispose of the parts of a human body, one by one. I must confess, with the moisture and even some of the tint of corpuscles beginning to show through at the ends, my package might have been a man’s thigh-piece, from groin to kneecap. Except for the odor, which gave us an unmistakable alibi. All t he man at the Penn Station counter said was, ‘Uhn-uhn,’ negative.
“My Bufano was a cheerful little rooster, he said we should try the Hotel Wentman, just a couple blocks over; they had a big check room, be said. No luck, they wouldn’t take fish. We tried the Hotel Regina. No luck. We tried the Hampdon and the Marjoran. No and no. They wouldn’t even let us all the way across the lobby at the St. Anselm. Mr. Bufano tried to rent a room at a little no-good place away over West, thinking we would put our salmon to bed in it, but they stopped us in the elevator.
“And so it was that at a few minutes before eight o’clock in the evening, we stood on a windswept corner in western Manhattan, and the tears welled up in my eyes and not even my pigeon, my Bufano, could comfort me. For suddenly I had realized that this parcel was more than a cut-off salmon. This was all my troubles, wrapped up in shabby newsprint. This was all the things that, kept me from all my desires. That package — I suddenly realized it, Mrs. Manterbaum — that package was all the unhappinesses I couldn’t get rid of in this life: it was my fleshiness, my unbeatable appetite for chocolate things, and my being without any learning, and no friends to speak of, and teased by such spiteful old maids as our Maggie, and couldn’t even be promoted past the Near Pantry, and what good was I anyhow? And I was embracing all these things in my arms like a dear beloved friend, and smelling to high heaven of the burden.
“Then it was that my Bufano said, ‘Well, Miss Peggety, three’s a crowd, but let’s face facts, he goes where we go.'
“And I suddenly realized, you have to live with whatever it is you have to live with, so I dried up my eyes and said, ‘Suits me, Mr. Bufano.’
“‘Well!’ he beamed, and a gold tooth he had glistened like the planet Venus at the edge of night. ‘What was it to be, steak or a little twinkletoes?’
“Now that I knew where I was, with my shortcomings folded up in a wee bundle of old papers, you might say, and my Bufano willing to accept them if I would, I grew bold suddenly and said, ‘Couldn’t we do both, Mr. Bufano? Eat and dance too ? ‘
“‘Miss Peggety, you’re a dear,’ he said, and if I had cried this time, it would have been for other reasons than mere fishiness. My Bufano was so delicate!
WE HAD a grand time, I can tell you. My Bufano took me here and there, now dancing, now eating, now tippling a wee beer, now riding a Fifth Avenue bus just for the ride, as idle as you please. Soon we were used to our scaly friend and his consequences. What if everybody did turn and give us a stare, with tiny wrinkles at the bridge of the nose? In a way, it was gaudy, you might say. Surely Small Peggety had never in her life attracted so much attention, either from eye or nostril. I will go farther. Our salmon became more than a novelty: he was, at last, a handy thing to have about the person. In a crowded situation, we could always get passageway — the mob just opened up for us, real respectful. In the eating places (my Bufano took me to some of the basement ones, away to the fringes of the great city, where, either through kinship with the proprietor or a grand little tip, there was never a question of accepting us with our third party), we used it for a little extra table, beside us, to hold an ash tray or perhaps a wee pony of spirits. There it was, squared off at both ends, like a piece of log, and it stood up steady and true, very convenient by the knee for a reach. And there our hands did brush against one another: that was when I knew that my Bufano was the nicest one of all.
“Indeed, what except my parcel of shortcomings led to the bliss of the evening? I had to be back to the Near Pantry by seven in the morning, which meant, at the latest, the 5.13 from Penn Station. It was still only about three in the morning when my Bufano, with the gentlest way in the world, said, ‘My dear, don’t you think that your salmon needs a little ventilation? I should hate, for your Mr. Saunders’ sake, to have it fester and decay. It wants aeration. I propose that we go up to Central Park, and fold back the newspapers, and give it the night air to keep it tasty.’
“That we did. We found a wee hillock, away from the paved walks — ‘Asphalt!' my Bufano had remarked as we had gone along the walks. ‘Your Mr. Saunders is everywhere’ — and we set up our fish on the hill and peeled away the newsprint and let the sweet, damp night get at it. We moved away a little, to wait for the salmon to grow mellow, when, next thing I knew, as natural as the dew all around and the constellations winking up there, Bufano got his arms about me. He could just barely make it with his short little arms and my girth, which he praised. And he stood on tiptoe and kissed me.”
Miss Peg’s voice had fallen low; her eyelids shaded her jovial eyes in a modest downward look. Mrs. Manterbaum sighed.
“Did you catch your train?" Johnny the busboy asked.
“I caught my train, Johnny,”Miss Leg said. “Yes, I caught my train.” She paused, “I never saw my Bufano again, either. He was the hit-andrun sort, you might say. But I don’t know, Johnny, it didn’t matter. That night did something for mo. You know, Mrs. Mantcrbaum, I have never been able to give sufficient worry to my faults since that night. Some would call me slack. . . . I don’t know. . . . Yes, I caught the 5.13, Johnny.”
“How was the fish next night?” Mrs. Mantcrbaum of the sugartooth wanted to know.
“When they brought it out to the Near Pantry, after the second serving,” Miss Peg replied, “I dared to cut away a wee snippet. I put it in my mouth. Oh, heavens, Mrs. Mantcrbaum! It faded on the tongue. It put this angel cake of mine to shame. And as I rested the morsel against my palate and let it warm my throat, the way I the men do with their brandy, I squeezed out a sob, Mrs. Mantcrbaum, I’m not ashamed to tell you that, and I said to myself, ‘I’m not so bad as I thought, not half so bad.’ . . . I Well!" Miss Peg said abruptly and more briskly , “Time to lock up.”
Miss Peg lifted the pan of delicacies and slid it onto the shelf where it belonged. She stood up and dusted the crumbs from the front of her dress, seeming to be rather pleased with herself.