"Serve you a meat, ma'am?"
Her hair is pulled back into a severe bun at the nape of the neck, and held down by a paper hairnet. She is one of those people of indiscriminate age; older than me, maybe old enough to be my mother, but maybe not. Her name tag had once read BETTIE, but years of fingers and thumbs rubbing it as she fastened and unfastened the pin has worn away much of the ink. It now reads, PET, like a title or an invitation. Her face is loose and doughy and I know that if I were to push her cheek up with my finger is would stay there for a moment, before slowly sliding back down into her jowls. Her eyes are flat and black and look through me.
"Serve you a meat?"
I've made my way past the cold salads - limp lettuce and plastic cheese and cups of Jell-O suspending bananas and strawberry bits - and into the heart of the buffet line. The meat of the matter. Greasy fried chicken, fried liver and onions, leather like beef cut into strips and covered in gravy, thin pork chops floating in mushroom soup, Salisbury steak.
"Salisbury steak!" I say, "Is it any good? You don't suppose it was invented in a town called Salisbury, do you?"
Her black eyes still stare at me, but her mouth does something different. There is a sharp intake of breath and then she purses her lips and blows it out, slowly.
Tonight she will go home and take off the thick soled shoes she wears for work. She will roll down the compression socks and fill the basin with water simmered on the gas stove. She will wince because the water is too hot, but then settle in her chair and look at her legs.
Her feet are tired, but it's her legs that always draw the eye. She had been a dancer when she was young - long and lean, her legs full of muscles most people don't even know are there. She'd been a contest once with some other girls, standing on their toes until their legs ached and they collapsed, one by one. Some of the girls cried from the pain, their calves cramped, but not Bettie. She had stood there smiling until the last girl gave up, then slowly lowered herself back down to the ground.
It was dance that had taken her to England, traveling on a cruise ship and making decent money to entertain the wealthy people on board. During an extended shore leave, she took up with another dancer on her way to an arts festival in Salisbury. The town had a reputation for it's hospitality toward performers, and Bettie thought she might take a break from dancing on the ship for three shows every night and four on Saturday. Settle awhile, keep her feet planted on terra firma, maybe even meet someone nice.
Salisbury was smaller than she had imagined, and older. The city sat under the shadow of a great cathedral and it's thoroughfares were clogged with tourists and pilgrims. The rivers that had once bisected the town had been rerouted around in a manner that created great open parks, and groups of locals and visitors alike congregated on the banks of the river in all but the worst of weather.
Her friend had been right, and Bettie quickly found a job in a local theater, dancing and occasionally doing a little acting in the ensemble. She was treated well, paid fair, and liked by her peers and patrons. She was happy.
Bettie had been at the theater five months when the Frenchman came to his first show. He was a soldier, handsome and tall, with jet black hair and a ramrod straight back. He sat in the front row with a other men from his squadron, all in uniform, most drunk. They were loud and boisterous, but spending money and generally behaving. When Bettie took the stage, they catcalled and whistled and clapped each other on the back. All of them but the dark haired man, who sat still and quiet. His eyes did not leave her face.
He came again the next night, this time alone.
He came again the next night, and the next, and the next. For three weeks he came and watched Bettie dance. He never smiled, and never looked anywhere but her face. One night after her number, she stepped out the stage door for a cigarette, and found him standing there.
"You should not smoke, you know," he said, as he held out a match.
"Tell me what else I shouldn't do," she replied.
He was irresistible. He was smooth and handsome and showered her with gifts and attention, told her she was the most beautiful woman in the world. After they made love, he would rub her legs with perfumed cream, and kiss her feet. Once, as she waited for him outside the theater, an Englishman with bad skin and stinking of whisky approached her.
"Will you dance for me?" he said as he grabbed at her. Before Bettie could react, the Frenchman was on the man. His fists flew at the man's face again and again, until he stopped begging and lay silently in the alley.
"From now on, wait inside," he said.
After three months, he asked her not to see her friends anymore. "They are whores," he said. After six months, he asked her to stop dancing, and to marry him. "You do not need to work. We don't need anything else, we have each other." He held her tightly, too tightly, and kissed her. He smashed her lips against her teeth and she tasted her own blood.
"No, I'm sorry, no." She told him the next day and pressed the ring he had given her into his palm. He said nothing, only turned and walked away.
They came at night on the third day after she left him. Four men in uniform, their guns out of their holsters. They walked into her apartment and beat her and raped her until she could no longer cry out, and then the Frenchman walked in. "I have not yet begun," he whispered in her ear. He started at the very top of her thigh and worked his way to her ankle, first the left leg, then the right. He carved a map of hate that ran rivers of blood that she could feel, when she could feel, pooling on the floor beneath her. She would lose consciousness only to regain it moments later, riding the wave in and out until she silently prayed for death.
She didn't die.
It was the landlord that found her, and the hospital that took her, and the doctors and nurses who sewed up the great gashes in her legs. It was the crutches that bore her, and the boat that carried her, across a great sea and far away from Salisbury and the Frenchmen, who disappeared like a ghost when the police tried to find him.
She was twenty-five when she saw the sign in the window of the cafeteria. Her eyes were flat and black and her legs were swathed in heavy black stockings. She was quiet and serious and they hired her on the spot. She would work there for forty-two years until someone had the audacity to say -
"The Salisbury steak?" I repeated, "Is it any good?"
She exhaled and said, "I wouldn't recommend it."