It's Saturday night and Mario's Dine and Dance is packed with Wops twirling spaghetti on their forks and women on the dance floor. It's 1956. People say Wop without thinking twice. Mario's is at the top of the Johnston Street hill, a few blocks past another dance joint called the Rose Bank. The Rose Bank caters to a more sophisticated crowd - as far as sophistication goes in a small town like Alberni.
At the bottom of the hill, across the street from the elementary school, a short fat woman named Dolly dances in her living room with her cat in her arms. They are doing a tango to the record playing on her wind-up Victrola. Dolly has almond-shaped green eyes, pale skin and a bow-shaped mouth painted with deep purplish lipstick. Her dyed red hair is pulled into an upsweep. Loose curls at the front tumble down onto her forehead. She's loyal to this hairstyle even though it went out with the forties. She's squeezed into a strapless, copper-coloured satin cocktail dress. There's a rhinestone choker around her neck. She's wearing spike heels, with open toes and sling backs, that are in danger of collapsing under her weight. She's humming along to the music, eyes half closed, as she glides, swirls and dips. Despite all her chins, you couldn't call her unattractive.
"It's too bad you're not a real man, Buddy," she says to the striped ginger cat who is clinging to her pillowy breasts with his foreclaws. There's a red carnation tucked under his bejewelled collar.
"If you were a real man we could go to Mario's and dance the night away with all those Eyetalians." Buddy flexes his claws and strains to get away. The record comes to an end. Dolly turns it over, cranks up the machine and sets the needle back down at the start. She does all this with one hand. She turns down the volume, releases Buddy and sinks into the burgundy velour couch. Her face glistens with perspiration. She picks up the Photoplay magazine she almost sat on and fans herself with it, then reaches for the tumbler of rye and Seven Up waiting on a starched, stand-up doily on the coffee table and takes a big gulp.
"Here's to me," she says, clinking her glass against a framed photo of herself on the end table. In it she is standing in front of the Rose Bank, young and slim, wearing a tiara and a ribbon sash.
"Here's to the Has Been Beauty Queen." She takes another long drink. She toasts herself several times, drinking several more Rye and Sevens.
"Here's to the Has Been Cheerleader. Here's to the Has Been Tap Dancer. Here's to the girl voted Most Likely to Succeed." She removes a cigarette from a gold case and lights up. "Here's to the Old Maid."
Dolly sits with her head back and her legs open. After a few puffs she puts the cigarette in an ashtray, kicks off her heels and tucks her legs up under her. "I used to be a somebody," she says to Buddy, who is stretched out on the other end of the sofa watching her. "Now I'm a nobody. And I have nobody but you little Buddy. You're my only guy. Nobody loves big fat Dolly, but you." Buddy meows and flips onto his back, kneading the air with his paws. Tears fill Dolly's eyes. She stands up, goes to the kitchen and opens the fridge. She takes three chicken legs from an A&W box and drops them on a china dinner plate trimmed with dainty pink and blue flowers. She spoons enormous mounds of potato salad and coleslaw next to them. Her pudgy index finger caresses one of the tiny flowers circling her dish.
"You are so pretty," she tells it. Tears plop onto her food. Standing in the middle of the kitchen, she eats all three drumsticks, tosses the bones into the garbage pail under the sink, opens the fridge again and puts a stack of wings on her plate. She gets out the chicken livers that she cooked for Buddy earlier, dices them, and puts them in the bowl that says CAT on its side and takes them to the living room along with her own snack. Dolly and Buddy eat side by side in silence. When they're finished, Dolly goes back to the kitchen and removes a round cake with chocolate icing from a carton on the counter. HAPPY BIRTHDAY is written in pink sugary scroll across its top. She sets four pink candles in it and lights them. She carries the cake to the coffee table. Buddy stretches. He washes his paws and face and begins to purr.
"Another birthday," says Dolly. "The big one. My fortieth. One candle for each decade." She sings in a quiet voice, "Happy Birthday to me. Happy Birthday to me. Happy Birthday dear Doll-y. Happy Birthday to me." She closes her eyes and makes a wish for someone to love her before she blows the candles out.
"This is pathetic," Dolly says. "What a pathetic party, eh Buddy?" She wipes at her tears with the back of her plump hands, but is unable to stop them. She gropes for a tissue that's tucked in the top of her bra and blows her nose. She cuts a slab of cake, puts it on a fancy plate and eats it with a sterling silver fork. Then she has another slice. And another. And another. Next, she opens a box of Black Magic Chocolates and begins to eat them non-stop.
"God, I feel sick. Yuck. How can I be so full and so empty at the same time?" she says, sniffling.
"Look at me, Buddy. I'm disgusting. No wonder nobody loves me. I'm a big fat failure. I hate myself. I'm fat. Really, really fat." She lies face down on the sofa and sobs. Buddy licks the swollen ankle that's crowding him. He moves up and settles himself on the small of her back. They both fall asleep and don't move until morning.
When she awakens, Dolly takes a shower and changes into turquoise pedal pushers and a sleeveless white turtleneck pullover. She spends the day cleaning her place: scrubbing floors, washing windows and tidying cupboards. By five o'clock she's ready to return to Mario's, where she works the evening shift. Buddy winds around her legs as she stoops to pet him goodbye.
"Thank God for my job," she tells him. "If I didn't have you and my job to keep me busy, I'd go nuts." She nods to a wedding photograph on the mantle. "Bye, bye Mommy and Daddy. See you later."
Mario's is the kind of simple diner that you find in any small town. White clap board siding, a narrow bed of flowers growing up against the wall facing the highway, a paved parking lot on one side and a neon sign on the roof. The sign writes out DINE AND DANCE in hot pink liquid against the night sky, blinks once, disappears, then starts writing all over again. The windows of the diner are wide open when Dolly walks up the path to the back door. Even from outside she can hear voices, laughter and music. She smells cigarette smoke, garlic and grease.
Her job is in the kitchen helping Betty, Mario's wife. They do the cooking while Mario plays his accordion in the dining room. Gloria, the one and only waitress, wears a short black uniform with a white organza apron. She dashes back and forth through the swinging doors that separate the kitchen from the dining room, taking orders and serving her customers.
There isn't a menu here. Everyone comes for the same thing: T-bone steak or deep fried chicken, served with spaghetti or French fries. There's always a bowl of salad and a basket of bread, gratis, on the tables. It's a popular spot.
Betty, who wears a constant smile, nurse's shoes and a white chef's apron, is anxious to hear about the birthday party the minute Dolly walks through the door.
"So, Miss Birthday Girl," Betty says. "How was your party last night? Did a lot of people show up?" She is dipping a wire basket of fries into hot grease.
"Yeah. It was a real bash. Tons of people. We had a ball."
"So who was all there?"
"Oh, just old friends of mine. The usual gang. But it was a riot. Really neat."
"Was there dancing?"
"Natch. We danced all night. You know I love dancing. I made bacon and eggs for everyone in the morning."
"That's nice. A beautiful girl like you should think about getting married. You'd always have company then. It's good to be married. Look at me and Mario. We've been together for forty-two years. Just make sure you pick a good man."
"Well, maybe someday." Dolly keeps her voice even. She puts on an apron and starts to coat chicken pieces in batter.
"Dolly, have some fries. Do you want a steak? I'll throw one on the grill for you."
"Come on, keep me company. I'm starved. Let's have something to eat before it gets crazy busy back here."
"No, really, Betty. I'm not hungry. Thanks anyhow."
"You never eat a thing. You're going to waste away if you're not careful."
"Not much danger of that," says Dolly, laughing.
Gloria comes in with a load of dirty dishes piled up along her left arm. She unloads them onto the counter by the sink. While the doors are swinging back and forth, Dolly catches a glimpse of people whooping and stomping their way around the dance floor. The Beer Barrel Polka. Her favourite. "Gloria, ya wanna dance?" asks Dolly. She rinses her hands, wipes them on her apron and grabs skinny Gloria around the waist. They polka in the space between the stove and the sink. Betty taps her foot and claps her hands in rhythm. Gloria, flushed and giggling, goes back to waiting on people when the number is finished, and Mario comes out back with his accordion still strapped on.
"Will one of you beauties pour me a glass of wine? I need a little break. How's the Birthday Glamour Puss? How was the big party?"
"Lucky guys getting to party with you, Dolly. I wish I was young and single. I'm here to tell ya I'd sure be hanging around your place."
Dolly laughs. "You're nuts," she says.
She has lined up the coated chicken pieces on a tray and put them in the fridge. Now she's peeling potatoes. Betty is rubbing steaks with garlic cloves. Mario slips off the accordion, grabs a bread roll and eats it with a little salad that he's mixed with oil and vinegar. Betty passes him a glass and an open bottle of Chianti.
"Dolly, bellissima! Guess what? I've got the perfect guy for you," he says. "My cousin, Sergio. He's coming out from the old country next week. A handsome bugger. Your age." "Does he speak English?"
"No . . . but he speaks the language of love." Mario raises his eyebrows up and down like Groucho Marx and starts to sing, "When the moon hits your eye like a . . . " but Betty interrupts.
"Ignore him, Dolly. You know Mario. The cousin's probably a cross-eyed jerk with a warped sense of humour like him. I bet it runs in the family." She makes small circles with her index finger near her ear. "Besides, Mario, why would she want to hook up with a Wop? It's bad enough I've got one."
"I don't think I'm interested," says Dolly. "Thanks though, Mario."
"You'll be interested. Latin lovers - we're everything you've ever dreamed of," says Mario, smoothing back his hair with both hands. "Next Saturday he'll be here. Fix yourself up a little or you'll be sorry you didn't. He's ripe for the picking. I won't be able to keep the other girls away from him for long." Mario winks at her, empties his glass and backs out through the swinging doors singing Mambo Italiano as he walks. The diners let out a cheer.
"Ya know, Dolly," says Betty, "I know you've got plenty of guys to choose from, but it sure would be nice if you did like this cousin. We could end up being cousins-in-law. All kidding aside, they say he's a nice fellow. I saw a picture of him. He's not bad."
"We'll see," says Dolly.
When she gets home that night, Dolly says, "Buddy, you might have some competition coming up." She gets out of her work clothes, has a long bath and slips into a lime green negligee with powder blue fur around the bottom of the sleeves. She puts on blue satin slippers. Then she sits in front of the mirror at her vanity and removes her pancake makeup with cold cream. She unpins her hair and brushes it. A hundred strokes. While she's brushing, she decides maybe she'll wear it down in a page boy for a change. Then she thinks about the cousin. Wouldn't it be something if he was a real hunk? I wonder if he likes dancing? Most Eyetalians do, and everyone knows they like girls with meat on their bones. She smiles at her reflection in the mirror.
She goes to the fridge and pours herself a glass of orange juice. While she's drinking, she starts taking cartons of ice cream out of the freezer and dumping them into the sink. Buddy makes figure eights around her feet.
Caren Durante is a counsellor and therapist in Vancouver. She uses creative writing and literature within the counselling process.