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The Ugly Man and His Daughter
by Jean-Gérald Charbonneau

HE WAS AN UGLY MAN AND HIS POOR DAUGHTER looked just like him. Every day at five you could see them trudging down the street to the corner diner. They didn't say anything to one another during the ten minute walk from their third floor apartment in a brownstone to Ernie's.

He always wore a dark suit-black, brown, charcoal-and a fedora, rain or shine. When the air was cold, he sported the same knee-length Humphrey Bogart trench coat. His expression of self-importance was either impressive or laughable. His daughter dressed casually- baggy jeans, a sweatshirt or an ample blouse that rendered her shapeless. Her windjammer was also too big. No makeup. Makeup, she believed, would have failed to soften her masculine features. Her hazel eyes shadowed by thick brows, her beak, her thin, stern lips all mirrored her father's. The only difference, really, was the smile that illuminated her face like a morning sun when she overheard a funny anecdote at the diner. Her father, for his part, would have remained stone- faced if the Pope himself slipped on a banana peel right in front of him.

The staff at Ernie's knew them well, of course. The ugly man and his daughter were the epitome of the regular customers. Plus they were polite, reserved, knew what they wanted to eat and each day, always left exactly 15%, even if it meant a $2.83 tip. In that case, two one-dollar bills, three quarters, one nickel, and three pennies would be stacked by the old man's plate. The diner's waitresses didn't fight over them, but they also didn't mind drawing their table. Better this odd duo than the rowdy high school kids who sometimes came in, or the welfare recipients who tended to stay on too long and complain about the service as if this were the Four Seasons restaurant, or the occasional irascible business person in both an expensive suit and a terrible hurry. Typically, the man and his daughter ordered the special of the day and ate without a word, like a couple married long ago. He hunched over his plate, and she sat upright, pecking at her food with her fork, looking around, listening to what was being said at the table behind her, as if what she was able to hear sustained her more than the food she was ingesting.

This was obvious to even the most jaded waitress, to the point where the diner's staff made a concerted effort to make sure that the booth behind the eager eavesdropper was occupied, preferably by a talkative couple or a lively group. Then she would break into that sunny smile of hers. Otherwise, the forlorn look on her face when no outside conversation accompanied her meal was heartbreaking. She would sit there in silence with the distorted mirror image her herself slurping his soup. Once their meal done, they would leave bills and change on the checkered tablecloth and go with no more than a nod to whatever staff watched them exit the restaurant. Every time he held the door open for his daughter before stepping out onto the street.

In the summer, after supper, when the days dragged into the evening, they sometimes headed for the park instead of their stuffy apartment. The park was populated with homeless people getting settled under the tree that would be their shelter for the night, teenagers making out on benches, joggers clad in Southern California- style lycra outfits, elderly folks on wobbly knees enjoying an early evening walk. Not that the old man noticed much of any of this. He was more inclined to direct his attention to the tip of his impeccably shined shoes as he walked. Since his wife died a decade earlier-pancreatic cancer can't be detected until it's too late, and only six weeks passed from the diagnosis to the time of death-the old man pretty much had retreated into himself, his own silent world, some pre- talkie era movie of angst and neurotic introspection. It was as if the entire universe had become extinct at the same time as his wife's EKG became a flat line on the monitor. That expression of self-importance he carried everywhere was nothing but a mask to conceal his grief. They had been married for thirty-five years, he and his wife, and every single one of them had been happy for him. Sure, they had their share of fights and arguments, but overall he kept being amazed at how lucky he was to be with such a woman-beautiful and smart and considerate. He was so ugly.

Well, there was his daughter. When she was born, his wife geysered with happiness, and so did he. Actually, it was more his wife's bliss that he cherished than the little girl herself. And he grew more and more disturbed and distressed as the child looked more and more like him. His wife didn't seem to notice and kept saying that the little one was an angel. But he shook his head every time he set his eyes on the kid.

In the middle of the park was an artificial lake where pedal boats were available for five bucks for a half hour, eight for a full hour, twelve for two, though it only took the average out-of-shape borderline obese tandem approximately ten minutes to cover the periphery the lake.

Once she suggested they rent one, and he grumbled and mumbled, but she insisted. It'll be fun!

So there they were, the pedal boat going slosh, slosh, slosh as they went around the lake, and the whole time the man grumbled and mumbled, Why would you want to keep circling on and on like wooden horses on a merry-go- round?

That quelled his daughter's smile. She sighed.

I thought that taking a short spin on the water would have been pleasant, she said, that it would have been something else to do, you know, a break in the routine. Aren't sick of it all, Dad?

He didn't reply, only winced in the setting sun. Then he said, We should head back if we don't want to miss the news on TV.

She sighed once more, silently. Anxiety was smeared all over her face.

She was only twenty-seven, though she thought she looked older. Thirty-five. Forty even. She stayed with her father because he needed her. He had no one else. His only acquaintance was the head librarian at the university where he had taught philosophy before retiring. He had no friends. The only friends he had ever had, as far as his daughter knew, were ones made by his wife. She had excelled at that. She attracted people all the time, and was always able to sift through the lot to find the truly good ones, the honest, the caring, the interesting. But after she died, in the months following the funeral, her husband cut off all bridges by not returning calls and finding excuses for not seeing anyone, being curt in the process. After a while people said screw him. She stayed with her father, she admitted to herself not nearly often enough, also because she had nowhere else to go. It was her face. That ugly face of hers. It sapped all the confidence she could muster. I mean, what can I do with a face like that? Where can I go? Who would want me? Who could love me? She was the Miss America of self- hatred, the ultimate poster girl for negative self- image, the world's uncontested champion of self- loathing. Because she looked like a middle-aged man, yes, of course, absolutely, but also because she kept comparing herself to her defunct mother, who was a Grace Kelly look-alike, with the harmonious features, the perfect complexion, the regal gestures. That was the most infuriating part of it all. Not simply that the injustice of her being such a spinster was unbearable, but that her own mother's DNA had boycotted her offspring.

So she was stuck with the old man. Had been for ten years. He wasn't mean to her or anything, at least not usually. Not like he was physically abusive. And he took care of her; his pension was modest, but sufficient for the two of them. But his silence. His silence was like a ceiling of smog over a city, an all-encompassing and suffocating tropical heat, an endless mime festival, an incomprehensible nightmare that Kafka might have imagined on a particularly somber day. The Kafka reference is not gratuitous; the old man had a penchant for Kierkergaard, Beckett, Dostoyesky and other such jovial writers, including the author of In the Penal Colony. Once a week, every Thursday, he headed for the university library to replenish his stock of reading material: Being and Nothingness, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Quiet Desperation in North America, Existentialism for Dummies--the last one for his daughter. When he went to the library, he always made sure that he was back at the apartment well before five, so that he and his daughter could go to the diner, like it was some sacred ceremony. There, he would sometimes look at his daughter with a frown that made her think that maybe he'd prefer if she weren't there, if she were gone forever, if she'd never been born. But that couldn't be.

* * *

in time. Quarter to five, he wasn't there. Five o'clock, he still hadn't arrived. Five past. Five-ten. No trace of him. By then his daughter was stomping about the apartment, her windjammer in hand, pushing aside the curtains every nine seconds to inspect the sidewalk. Maybe he got sick. Maybe a car hit him. Five-fifteen. Maybe, maybe, maybe. Five-seventeen.

Jesus Almighty, she remembered now! He had told her to meet him at the diner, that there was a book sale at the university organized by his acquaintance the head librarian, that he might be a little late but to go at the diner anyway. How could she have forgotten?

She arrived at Ernie's winded and dizzy from her sprint.

There you are, said the cashier. We were wondering maybe you weren't gonna come.

The daughter replied something incomprehensible.

You by yourself? asked the cashier. Where's your dad?

The daughter mumbled some more, that her father was going to be here shortly.

A waitress gave her a table by the window. There was a couple sitting in the booth behind her.

The daughter still was trying to catch her breath and looked out the window. Dark clouds were fast gathering in the sky.

The waitress plunked a glass of water on the table and winked.

The staff was beginning to wager bets whether or not you guys were coming or not, she said. I was actually a little worried.

The daughter smiled shyly. Oh no, she said, we always come.

I know, honey, that's what I mean, that's why I was worried.

Thanks, said the daughter, but we always come.

The waitress, exasperated, said she was going to get the menu.

The daughter turned toward the window. People outside were hurrying home from work. Kids to take care of, suppers to get ready, papers to be read, television to be watched, dogs to be walked. There were also people who looked like free spirits, who seem to know nothing about routine. Imagine that! She wondered what her father was doing. It was getting late. The couple behind her was talking about a movie they had just seen. A comedy filled with sadness.

The waitress came back with the menu. What would you like to eat? she asked right away. She knew that the man's daughter knew the menu by heart.

Maybe I should wait for my father.

The waitress smiled. Listen, honey, would you like something to drink?

The daughter had never had anything to drink before. She gave the waitress a blank look.

The waitress winked once again and a minute later came back with a glass of white wine. Try it, you'll like it.

The daughter took a sip. She smiled. That's good. It was a sweet German wine.

I knew you'd like it, honey. Sure you don't want to order? Maybe your dad won't show up.

The daughter was startled by that. But she said, No, no. I'll wait for my father.

The waitress said okay and walked away.

For a moment, the daughter had forgotten about her father. She looked out the window. Still not there. She took another sip of her wine and tried to listen to people behind her. The sky was all gray now. Any moment and it would begin to rain. The people behind her burst into laughter. How she envied them. Another sip of the sweet stuff.

There was a sudden clap of thunder and the rain came down, hard.

Then there he was, her father, running in the rain in his trench coat, with that fedora of his, carrying a cardboard box no doubt filled with books he had bought. His shoulders were hunched and he was wet and he looked pathetic, and his daughter thought, in a flash, Oh my God, are people seeing me the way I see him right now? That got the wheel started: Why am I doing this? The same street every day. The same diner. The same life. The same nothing. Why do I do that?

Her father walked into the diner, went straight to the coat hanger at the back and hung his Humphrey Bogart and shook the rain off his fedora. Then he sat in front of his daughter.

Sorry I'm late, he muttered.

He glanced at the menu.

I think I'll have the soup, he told the waitress.

Yes, sir.

He sniffled.

Lousy weather, he said.

She examined her father. For the first time in an eternity she didn't see herself in that awful face of his.

He looked up at his daughter. What's wrong with you? God, you look like hell. And what's with the wine?

Shut up! she shouted.

The old man blinked.

Just shut up! I can't take this anymore! You'll never see me again! Ever! Understand?

She grabbed her windjammer and slid out of the booth and stormed out of the diner, with the employees and the customers gawking at her.

The old man turned to the window to see his daughter running away in the pouring rain. She disappeared around the corner.

He dabbed his mouth with his napkin, rose to his feet and began to jig. There was this chronically taciturn man in his dark suit dancing a cappella in the middle of the restaurant.

One of the waitresses elbowed the cashier and said, Think we should call for help?

The ugly man was still jigging on the linoleum floor, his limbs flying off awkwardly this way and that.

The cashier twisted her face as if to say, How the hell do I know?


Jean-Gérald Charbonneau had all possibles cautioned.

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