Sissy had worked weekends at Corint’s Steakhouse since she was 15 and not allowed to carry open drinks to the tables. Another server or bartender had to do it for her and they grumbled, but not too loudly, because she was the boss’s daughter, and Zachary Corint was one of the few bosses left in Tatter Lake. People complained about that too, said that Corint had driven local businesses under, made bad deals and broken good ones. They whispered that people he disliked went begging for work at the Sleeping Bear Grill, or zoned the shampoo aisle at the Wal-Mart, and still half the time no one would hire a man Zach Corint didn’t like.
So year after year there came a constant hopeful chorus through the doors of the restaurant: high school girls, girls home from college, girls who had never left for college, unemployed women trying too hard to look like the girls they once were. All arrived to interview already dressed in short black skirts and snuggly buttoned white shirts, as if to reassure Mr. Corint that they knew what would be expected of them. Mr. Corint’s precise expectations were the subject of speculation when Sissy’s back was turned. The town whispered that Sissy was the only waitress her father hadn’t slept with in the last ten years. A few added, meanly, that her looks were the only thing that had stopped him.
Sissy was eighteen now but looked younger, gangly and flat-chested. Sometimes she tried to copy things the other waitresses did, carried a tray in a certain way or twitched her hips or wore bright push-up bras that showed through her white shirts. But boys didn’t notice her, or noticed her and knew who her father was, and Sissy knew she didn’t have the kind of looks that boys would brave Zach Corint for. Still she relished being her father’s daughter. Her mother had died when she was a baby, and Sissy felt she owed her father a great deal. She secretly enjoyed the parades of hopefuls, the girls who filled out their applications and their shirts and still went away jobless.
Mr. Corint received supplicants at a four-person booth in the back of the steakhouse, a bad table near the kitchen door. Unless the restaurant was packed he used the table for business, went over accounts, talked to his shift leads or head cook. The antlers off a twelve-point, white-tailed buck were mounted over the table. There were several sets of antlers up on the walls; Mr. Corint didn’t hunt, but liked the look of the bone branches against the dark wood paneling. When Gina Aspeth came to interview, Sissy was refilling bottles of worcestershire sauce at a booth across the aisle, talking with her father about the Law & Order marathon they’d watched on television the night before.
“You have serving experience?” Mr. Corint asked Gina.
“I’m a fast learner,” she said. Her white shirt stretched slightly open over her breasts, the space between the buttons gaping like a little mouth.
“That wasn’t my question.”
“Just give me a chance. A couple of tables. Weekday lunch. I’ll take anything you’re willing to give me.”
Mr. Corint looked Gina up and down, then glanced past her to Sissy. Sissy shook her head. Gina had only arrived in town a few weeks ago, after school let out, and Sissy didn’t have any information on her. Looking at Gina, though, it was easy to guess what the town was saying: she was easily prettier than any of the last five girls who’d been crowned Princess of the Cherry Harvest, but with the look of the girls who didn’t bother with parades, who had more interest in afterparties and backseats than in the proms and homecoming dances that usually came first. Mr. Corint nodded his approval.
Gina was, as she’d said, a fast learner. She shadowed Sissy for a few shifts. Then Mr. Corint took hours from other servers to give to Gina. When they complained, he took tables from them and created a whole new section. All this without, as far as anyone knew, Mr. Corint touching more than Gina’s elbow. The other waitresses whispered until Gina was carrying her trays of ribeye through a constant rustle of irritation. Only Sissy found it difficult to dislike the new girl too completely: Gina, like her, was motherless. Her father was a biologist with the local EPA office, monitoring fish populations along the Big Sable River. Father and daughter looked startlingly alike, the same full lips and soft features shared between male and female, sixteen years old and fifty-four. He stiffly introduced himself as Dr. Aspeth when he introduced himself at all. Gina was usually the one to smile at the clerks and cashiers of Tatter Lake, accepting plates of welcome cookies from the neighbors while her father stayed hidden. She trailed him like a translator, helping him navigate daily hurdles of courtesy and commerce. Most of Tatter Lake thought Dr. Aspeth was standoffish, effeminate, deeply out of place, except for Gina’s easy affection. She seemed both very devoted and a little ashamed of him.
In another life, without the burden and protection of a father who spoke immediately and forcefully on all subjects, Sissy imagined that she might have become someone a little more like Gina: a little louder, more confident, a lot prettier. Perhaps they could even be friends, if all Gina took were tables and tips.
The first night that Mr. Corint brought Gina home, Sissy was already in bed. Her tables had finished up early, and a busboy had given her a ride home. She heard the door shut, and thought about going down to say goodnight, to ask how the new hostess was coming along, how the take had been, when she heard laughter, the click of heels, the clatter and skitter of two different pairs of shoes hitting the floor.
“Is Sissy home?” she heard, then “Asleep.” Sissy got out of bed and crept to the door.
“Are you sure?”
“Does it matter?”
“I guess not.” Gina’s voice sounded higher, younger than it did at the steakhouse when she asked customers which sides they wanted with their entrée.
They came up the stairs, and Sissy heard her father’s bedroom door open. The room was next to hers, and she heard the sink of the bedsprings, the whispers and readjustments, as her father wrapped himself around someone who sounded suddenly much younger and more uncertain than she had led everyone to believe. Gina didn’t seem to know what she wanted, until she decided, or Mr. Corint decided for her, and their rhythm was steady and insistent. Sissy lay in bed and listened.
Mr. Corint drove Gina home that night, and the next three. Then one morning Gina was at the breakfast table wearing last night’s clothes, drinking orange juice and eating Sissy’s cereal. “Hey,” Gina said.
“Hey,” Sissy said. She got a bowl and spoon and sat at the table with Gina and her father. The girls ate cereal while Mr. Corint drank coffee and listened to classic rock radio. When he reached the bottom of the mug he got up, switched the radio off, and scooped his car keys off the counter. “I’ll take you home now,” he said, and Gina finished her orange juice in one long swallow. Sissy and her father watched the muscles in her throat move as she drank the juice. She stood up, got her purse, and pushed her feet into the black heels by the side door. “Ready,” she said, and Mr. Corint drove her home.
After another week, Mr. Corint didn’t take her home at all. Sissy came down one morning and Gina sat at the kitchen table in jeans and a blue t-shirt, socks and sneakers. Sissy ate and took a shower and there was apple-scented shampoo on the rim of the bathtub, a new tube of toothpaste in the medicine cabinet. Her father had left his bedroom door open and Sissy looked inside; there were two suitcases, one open on the dresser, another standing against the wall.
Gina ate breakfast with Sissy and her father in the mornings, then watched HGTV or the Food Network. She borrowed books off Sissy’s shelves, making her way through the Tatter High senior summer reading list. Sissy telephoned her small group of friends, the ones who were drifting off for summer jobs as camp counselors or for college orientations, until there was almost no one left to call. Sissy hadn’t felt the need to leave Tatter Lake for the summer or for college; she’d never felt the need to leave Tatter Lake at all, but now the smallness of the town, even the imposing spaciousness of her father’s house, seemed to press down on her. Every afternoon Mr. Corint, Sissy and Gina all drove to the steakhouse in Mr. Corint’s car. At night they came home and Gina and Mr. Corint had sex before they slept.
“It’s not right,” Sissy finally said. “With Gina. It’s not right.” Gina had finally left the house, for an errand to the drugstore. Sissy had hidden her box of tampons when they started to go missing. Mr. Corint was sitting on the couch, invoices from the steakhouse spread over the coffee table, a baseball game on TV.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“She’s younger than I am.” Sissy sat on the arm of the couch, left hip up, right foot on the floor, the way she’d done since she was little.
“Gina’s free to be with whoever she wants.”
“I’m not the bad guy, honey. All I did was invite her over.”
“You can’t just do that.”
“There’s no need to be jealous.”
“I’m not jealous.”
Her father turned back to the baseball game. “5-2. Bottom of the eighth,” he announced. They were both still for a moment, watching the batter swing at a bad pitch. Sissy had seen her father dismiss hundreds of people over the years, hopeful hires, angry customers, spurned women. She had never felt his gaze turn so resolutely away from her. Of course she wasn’t jealous, she told herself—she didn’t want her father back in the way that Gina had him. But what was the word then, for her anger, her loneliness, the truth that no one had ever wanted her the way her father wanted Gina? She was Zachary Corint’s daughter, the unquestioned center of his unforgiving world. “She hasn’t told her father,” Sissy said. “He doesn’t know where she is. He’s been coming by the restaurant but all anybody will tell him is that she’s moved in with some guy. They’re too nervous to say anything. They’re scared of you.”
“It’s none of their business. Gina’s father’s none of our business. She can tell him what she wants.”
“He’s worried about her.”
“You think he needs to be?”
“Of course not.”
“Then why don’t you drive yourself to the restaurant this evening,” he suggested. “Gina’s off tonight and I think I’ll stay in.” He paused. “5-3. They still don’t have a chance.”
Dinner was slow that night, and by eight-thirty Sissy was running the carpet sweeper through the foyer. When she heard the door chime she moved behind the hostess stand and stared down at the map of shaded in, marked up tables, before looking up at the guest. It was Dr. Aspeth. He was wearing a grey suit and a white shirt with the top buttons undone. He’d taken off his tie and wrapped one end around his right wrist, the fat end trailing down along his thigh to his knee. Sissy hadn’t pictured a scientist wearing such plain business clothes, without a white coat or rubber gloves. “I’m here about my daughter,” he said.
“I want to know where my daughter is.”
“How would I know that, sir?” Sissy took a red and white mint out of the glass dish on the hostess stand and unwrapped it slowly, keeping her eyes on the twisted plastic wrapper.
“My name is Connor Aspeth. My daughter is Gina Aspeth. The last I saw of her I dropped her off at work here. That was three and half weeks ago.”
“I don’t think it’s any of my business where Gina spends her time, sir.”
“I just want to know where she is.”
Sissy flattened the rectangle of plastic against the wood, smoothing out the creases. She leaned the mint against the front of a little cup of individually wrapped toothpicks, and Dr. Aspeth stared at the red swirl. “I don’t see how it’s my place to say, sir.”
“Then you know where she is.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“I’m saying it. I’m saying you all know. I’m saying I think every single person in this room right now knows exactly where my daughter is and no one will tell me.” He stepped forward until his soft stomach was pressing against the edge of the stand. He was not much taller than Sissy. “Did she meet a boy here? She met a boy, didn’t she?”
“I don’t know.”
“I just want to talk to her.”
“Please.” Dr. Aspeth gripped the wooden ridges at the sides of the stand. He didn’t shake it, just tightened his hands around it, like he was going to lift it up and take it with him out of the restaurant, as barter for his daughter. The movement jostled the mint and it fell onto the carpet. They both looked down until Dr. Aspeth bent to retrieve it. He staggered for a moment as he lifted the mint, as if the journey to the floor and back gave him vertigo, as if the moment his head was down the world had tilted slightly. He rolled the mint back and forth between his thumb and index finger. He placed it back flat on the stand and stood looking at it. “Please,” he said. “I just want to talk to her. I just want to make sure she’s okay.”
“She’s okay,” Sissy said. “I’m sure she’ll call you, eventually. I’m sure she doesn’t really want to hurt you.”
“Just tell me. I won’t tell her you told. I don’t even know who you are.”
“It’s not my—“
“I’m begging you. I really am, I’m begging. You don’t know what it’s like. You all have this secret and no one will talk to me and it’s killing me.”
“He’d kill me for telling you.”
“Who? Is he hurting her?”
“He’s not hurting her.”
“Who? Please. I could pay you. Anything. If you all think I’ve done something to her, if you think there’s a reason she’s spiting me… It’s not true. I miss her. Please.” He looked up at Sissy then, right at her, and she thought that she had never had anything anyone wanted so badly. She had never seen anyone need something so much and her with the power to give it to him.
Dr. Aspeth, who had steeled himself for three weeks for any answer, any location, any of the greasy teenage busboys or twenty-something bartenders, just blinked at her. “Corint as in—”
“He owns the restaurant,” Sissy said. “He and Gina are—she’s staying with him. 1219 Everwood. It’s nearby. Two story white house with a big front porch.”
“Thank you,” Dr. Aspeth said. He uncoiled the tie from his hand and refolded it, three times in half, until it was a tight blue bundle with white diamonds showing on the outside.
“Are you going there now?”
Dr. Aspeth nodded.
“Take a right on Superior. Then a couple miles west on Everwood. I don’t know if she’ll—she might want to stay.”
He nodded again. He took a toothpick from the glass cup. He twirled it twice, very slowly, and then put it in his jacket pocket. “Thank you,” he said again, and left.
When they stopped seating for the night Sissy clocked out and drove home. On the way she schooled her face, tried to ignore the tight feeling in her stomach that came from holding a secret. The tightness made her nervous but it was exciting, too; she felt smarter, sneakier, someone older and more experienced in the ways of the world. She’d done a decent thing but she wanted to think of it as devious, dangerous.
At the house the windows were dark. Sissy wondered if Gina was there, if she would be sleeping under the same roof again tonight or if that was over with, those nights listening to her father’s bed shudder and the mornings at the breakfast table. The door was unlocked and she walked in, locked it behind her, took her shoes off, checked to see that the front door was locked and the stove was off. She walked upstairs and into her bedroom. It was dark and her hand slid against the flowered wallpaper before she found the light switch. When the light came on she saw her father sitting on her bed. He was on the edge of the quilt, both feet flat on the floor. His hands rested on his knees and he was staring at her. She dropped her purse and made a noise, not a shriek, but a startled gasp of air.
“You told him to come here,” Mr. Corint said.
“The scientist. The fat, blonde scientist.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I don’t want to hear it.” He hadn’t moved from his spot on her bed, and she wasn’t sure where to go. Her desk was pushed against the wall to her right, covered in old school papers, a glass box with potpourri in it, a plastic souvenir wineglass from her senior prom, where she’d gone with friends and danced in a circle. Her father had bought her the dress. For the first time it struck her as strange, that she’d been earning her own money at the steakhouse for years, but her father had never made her pay for anything. She regretted it now, that she owed him so much. The desk chair was heaped with dirty clothes; she moved them onto the floor and sat down, facing her bed.
“I know what you did, and it was a very low thing to do,” he said.
“I just told him—”
“To come here and take Gina away. That’s low. That’s stabbing your own father in the back for some stranger. Some fat, soft stranger.”
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry she left you, but—”
“She didn’t leave, Sissy.”
“Gina’s sleeping. I’d appreciate it if you kept your voice down.”
Sissy knew very well how sound moved between the two rooms, how Gina would be wide awake listening to the conversation. If Gina was here to stay, Sissy thought, her transgression was worthless. Her father, who had an entire town eager to stay on his good side, who had been so generous with her, kind to her and only her, now thought she was a traitor. She remembered now the town’s whispers, the ones she’d relished, about how her father’s good side was a narrow ledge with a sheer drop and if you stepped wrong once you were over, out of his good graces, and nothing you could ever do would bring you back.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I just thought he should know. I thought someone needed to tell him. I don’t know what else to say.”
“Then don’t say any more. I don’t want you going out. I don’t want you to go to the restaurant. I’ll be here to pick you up at 11:30 tomorrow night. I’ll have work for you to do.”
“Okay,” she said, relieved that at least there was work to be done, atonement to be made. He stood up and she stayed sitting, tilting her head for the goodnight kiss on the cheek he sometimes still gave her. He walked past her and shut the door behind him.
The next day Sissy stayed in her bedroom, tried not to run into Gina or her father. She listened for footsteps before racing to and from the bathroom, the kitchen when she got hungry. At four Gina and Mr. Corint left for work. At 11:30 they came back, and Sissy sat in the kitchen as Gina took off her shoes and went upstairs to shower. Sissy followed her father to the car. When they got to the darkened steakhouse Mr. Corint took his heavy key ring out of his pocket and unlocked the kitchen door. Sissy knew the place almost as well as he did, and could immediately see the disorder. There were stacks of unwashed dishes, pieces of a broken plate scattered under the sink. The grill hadn’t been wiped or scrubbed. She wondered why the closers had been allowed to leave with the kitchen looking like it did.
“I told them not to clean it,” her father said, knowing exactly what she was thinking. “I assume you know everything that needs to be done. The dining room, too.”
“Then I’ll be back in the morning to pick you up. I figure it’ll take you that long.” Mr. Corint left and Sissy heard the car pull away.
She took the trash out first, wedging the door open with a saucepan as she dragged the bags to the dumpster behind the restaurant. She scraped the grill and pulled out the full grease trough. The grill had been off for an hour but the trough was still hot and sludgy and heavy. She staggered under the weight, dumping the grease down the drain in the cement floor in the rear storage room and hosing out the trough. She cleaned the grill until it was silver again, washed all the dishes, the floor and the countertops. They were all things she’d done at least once or twice, but none were her regular tasks and she was slow and awkward, forgetting where things went, tripping over table legs and buckets of potatoes.
In the dining room it took a long time to put every single chair on the tables. She vacuumed and then pulled the chairs down. She refilled the ketchup bottles and the sweetener packets and the salt and pepper shakers. She was dirty and tired and bleary, and spilled a shaker of salt on the carpet. She went back to the closet for the vacuum. She finally finished and sat down at the back booth where her father did his work. After a few minutes, she heard a car outside. Her father honked. She’d assumed he was going to come in, inspect her handiwork. She’d been looking forward to impressing him. He honked again, and she went outside, disappointed.
“Everything done?” he asked.
“I cleaned everything,” she said. “I tried to do a really good job.”
He grunted and drove them home.
The next day was the same. He dropped her off at the restaurant after closing and it was just as dirty as yesterday. After a day of customers it was as if she’d never been there, as if all the work she’d done the night before had evaporated. She was a little quicker about it, a little more used to the work. She finished twenty minutes before her father picked her up, and fell asleep with her head on her folded arms. She wondered how long this would go on.
Eventually, her hands didn’t shake when she hefted the grease trough. Her arms grew stronger, but were pocked and speckled from the way the grease flew, hot and small and sudden. However often she showered she smelled like grease and garbage and potato peels and charred meat. She was exhausted every morning and slept until early afternoon. Then she ate and skulked around her own house, waiting for Gina and her father to leave so she could lay on the couch and watch television. Her father barely spoke to her. Gina tried not to look at her.
In September Gina did not go back to school. She stayed on at the restaurant and Mr. Corint named a new salad after her, Gina’s Garden Greens. He had the menus re-printed. The closers felt a bit guilty about all the work left undone, the mess they created and stepped away from, but they never saw Sissy to either apologize or be kind or feel sorry for her. They didn’t want to come too close to her misfortune, in case it might be catching, and some of them were secretly glad that Zach Corint’s daughter was getting grease-scarred arms and callused hands. No one ever saw her, and all she saw was the inside of the steakhouse, newly dirty every night, dirty in all the same ways that it had been dirty the night before and the week before that and the month before that. Her work was never any different and never any better and never any more permanent. She only saw the restaurant clean in the minutes before her father fetched her in the morning; when she returned it was dripping, littered, stinking, and would be every night for as long as anybody came to eat there.
Mr. Corint hired two new girls in late November. Annie and Sibyl were the first new staff to be trained from the get-go in the art of leaving their messes un-tidied, their spills left spilled. They asked about it constantly, disbelieving, fearing Mr. Corint’s disapproval. “Sissy will get it,” everyone said. “Sissy cleans now.” The invisible Sissy, whom the new girls had never even met, gone from colleague to cleaner to gossip to rumor to finally, the pervasive presence of myth. She’d become a story the girls didn’t understand: was it a joke, a threat, or a simple fact, the order of the restaurant’s little universe? Sibyl and Annie were bewildered, and made a running joke for themselves, elaborate plans to sneak into the restaurant at night, or stand on stepladders outside the front windows with flashlights, hoping to catch a glimpse of the mysterious cleaner, the cursed girl with the hopeless task. But they never bothered: the girls had friends to see, and schoolwork to do, and sleep to get. And besides—however delicious or improbable or terrible the story sounded, assuming it was true, all they’d see would be some girl, cleaning.