After college I did a lot of restaurant work. I had worked in restaurants for years; it was a familiar scene. So I landed a job as a hostess in the swankiest restaurant in town, and I thought: Oh good, I don’t have to carry heavy trays or worry about a steak that gets cooked the wrong way. My job was to seat people, and when no one was waiting, I was to walk through the place and ask if everything was okay. Which I did happily, until the day an elderly woman looked up from the table and said, "No, it's not okay. I ordered the fish and just threw it up in the bathroom!" I didn’t know if she was kidding; she didn’t look like she was kidding. In my nervousness I suggested she might perhaps like another meal? "Never here, as long as I live!" After that I stopped asking, and just walked around smiling and filling water glasses. It was not a bad job.

Then the owner's wife accused me of stealing $100 from the cash register and it became a very difficult job. Mrs. B was an attractive woman but stony-faced. She asked to see me in her office upstairs, and said that $100 had been missing the night before when she cashed out and since I was the only person with access to the cash register she knew I had stolen the money and I was to give it back. I said I hadn't done it. She said I had. I said, "But I don’t understand." She said, "You may have to quit." Then she told me to think about it, and that when she cashed out tonight she expected the money would be there.

I knew people who stole things; shoplifted watches or makeup at the mall. And I was always amazed. My brother and I had been raised to not do a lot of things, and some of them we did anyway, but stealing—never. Stealing was serious. I was horrified that Mrs. B thought I had done this. I went to find her husband; I didn't know what else to do. Mr. B said, "You're not to pay any attention to her. You're a good hostess, I know you didn’t steal the money. I'll speak to her, and that's the end of it."

And it was. Except for the fact that Mrs. B every day stared at me, watched me, squinted her eyes at me from across the room. She scared me to death, really. And yet I needed the pay. So I stayed. But for weeks I chewed my lips to shreds, could barely eat. Mrs. B took up a huge amount of room in the universe of my mind. I could barely stroll among the tables without feeling coated in her dark gaze.

One night there was a fire and the restaurant closed. I don't think I ever saw the woman again. But now, so many years later, I think of her and how she frightened me, and I think how being young leaves one with so little sense of proportion. Oh, says my 58-year-old self, she wasn’t worth that worry! But there is something else my 58-year-old self says, which is: What was the story, Mrs. B? What was hurting you that you needed to do that? In my fear, she was barely a person to me, more a force. But she was a person, of course. She had her own story. I didn’t have the space to see that when I was young. I survived her. I hope she survived herself.

Elizabeth Strout is the author of The Burgess Boys (Random House) and Amy and Isabelle (Vintage).


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