I’m taking inventory in the walk-in freezer, have my hat and gloves on and am counting packages of sandwich buns, when one of my employees barrels through the door to tell me Mr. Chicken is back. She shivers in her green Golden Lotus blouse, grabs my elbow, drags me from the freezer.
“I can’t very well do much about him,” I say, taking off my hat.
“But he scares us,” she says. “You’re the manager. Manage him.”
By the time she and I reach the front counter, Mr. Chicken already has his first box of chicken bits in hand and is waddling back to a table to start eating. I don’t know who first started calling him Mr. Chicken. Probably one of the high school boys who works the fryers. Mr. Chicken is maybe fifty years old, balding, has salt and pepper hair, wears a white shirt and dark pants and a tie. He weighs about five hundred pounds and his stomach avalanches over his waistband like the extra is going to drop off at any moment.
Mr. Chicken’s gaze wanders around the room, staring hard at Golden Lotus customers and employees alike. We all watch his ritual from the corners of our eyes. He eats the first box of chicken bits then returns to the counter and orders a second twenty-piece box, lumbers back to his table and eats them all. He returns a third time, a fourth, a fifth, until he has eaten one hundred chicken bits. Then he orders a cherry turnover. An apple one. A vanilla fried ice cream. A chocolate. We watch him for twenty-five minutes. The way he keeps eating is scary, mechanical. Some of my employees think he must have four stomachs like a cow, that he’s not really human. In the past month, more than a few customer survey cards have come back with “Get rid of the weird fat guy’ written in the comments section.
Mr. Chicken stares at two little kids sitting at the next table until they cry. There is no expression on his face. I know I have to say something to him. I scratch the stubble on my chin. I’m not a very big woman and I like to go by the traditional idea that the customer is always right, but upsetting children is going too far. I take a deep breath and plod into the dining room area toward his table, hear my employees hold their collective breath.
“Pardon me sir,” I say. “I’m the manager at this restaurant.”
Mr. Chicken stares at me. “The food’s fine. Good food.”
I don’t know why I get mad at the staring. His eyes are a little sad, a little angry, a little like they’re daring me to do something.
“Some of our customers reported that you were looking at them intensely,” I say in my most polite manager voice. “They worried if you were okay.”
Mr. Chicken stuffs the end of a cherry turnover in his mouth. “This a restaurant or a shrink’s office?”
“Those kids you were staring at got upset,” I say.
“Not my fault.” Mr. Chicken wipes his mouth with a napkin. He smells of sweat and grease.
“I see,” I say. “Thank you for your time, sir. I hope you continue to enjoy your meal.”
I trudge behind the counter feeling rather like an idiot. All of my employees are biting their lips. I was unable to save them from the stares of Mr. Chicken. But I don’t feel right kicking someone out of the restaurant and I’m too stressed to be assertive. I had an awful date last night. James. We’d been out three times before and after dinner I figured I had to tell him that I was a closeted bearded lady. Because I’m blonde and shave every morning it’s really not noticeable, but relationships are always a problem. I explained the beard to James as we sat side by side on the couch in my apartment. He stared at me, then said he had to leave. When I asked about another date, he said that if he wanted to date someone who shaved his face he’d date a guy. Of course it hurt. Of course I cried after he left. But I’ve heard worse. Women with beards are scary. We cross that line between masculine and feminine. Maybe the men I date figure I’m going to run around hammering nails and fixing toilets and lifting weights and doing all of those stereotypical guy things and make them feel like pussies. Or at least less like guys.
Mr. Chicken lumbers out of Golden Lotus at two-thirty and my employees breathe a collective sigh of relief.
“Can’t you call the police on him or something?” says one of the guys who works the drive-through.
I try because I’m not sure what else to do. The dispatcher’s “hello” sounds bored and unhelpful but I tell her the story anyway, how there’s a man staring at the customers in my restaurant and I’m not sure what to do.
“I’d like to take legal action,” I say.
“Is he disturbing the peace?” she says.
“Not really,” I say. “He’s quiet, but he’s making little kids cry.”
“We can’t do much about that ma’am,” says the dispatcher, “not unless your fat man is trying to eat somebody.”
“What am I supposed to do?” I say.
“If he’s really fat,” she says, “you could sell tickets.”
I relay the call to my employees who are not amused. My afternoon is only mildly redeemed because I get to take off work a little early at four so I can make it to my haircut at Hairyette’s by six. Even though Hairyette’s is two hours away it’s worth the drive. My stylist, the only other bearded lady I know, has a beautiful silky brown beard that she keeps neatly trimmed.
“I keep hoping you’ll come back with a lovely blonde beard,” she says while she shampoos my hair.
“It looks good on you,” I say. “It would look silly on me.”
“You need to try it,” she says, wrapping a towel around my head. “Get used to it.”
I tell her about James so she can give me sympathy.
“You have to grow out the beard and then start looking,” she says. “Some men love beards. My ex-husband for instance. Now there was a man who always said, “If I can have a beard, my wife might as well have one, too.”
“But he’s your ex,” I say.
“Honey,” she says, “there’s a lot more to a marriage than facial hair issues.”
I nod, but in the end it’s too easy to shave every morning and keep myself looking normal. One of my ex-boyfriends suggested electrolysis, but it’s too expensive, too painful, and I’m afraid of scaring. I might end up in a worse place than I am already.
I feel better after the haircut at least, good enough to visit Mr. Yamoto and give him the weekly report on the restaurant. Mr. Yamoto owns Golden Lotus, cooked there for a number of years before his joint pain got too bad. He doesn’t get out of the apartment much now, weighs about three hundred fifty pounds, but says he used to be two hundred pounds heavier. He was a sumo wrestler back in Japan, a celebrity, but after he injured his ankle and retired his fan club dissolved, the letters slowed to a trickle. He wallowed in a thick depression for a few months before deciding to come to America. Once he whispered to me that the restaurant saved him.
“Cooking,” he says. “That was the answer.” He designed the menu to be based around tempura fried foods. Everything is lightly battered and then bathed in hot oil, which explains why many of our regular customers aren’t that much smaller than Mr. Chicken, although they are quite a bit nicer.
When I get to Mr. Yamoto’s apartment he nods at me, a tiny bow, and invites me in for really strong Japanese coffee. As we sip I tell him I’m not going out with James anymore. Mr. Yamoto turns his coffee cup around in his large hands and shakes his head, tells me I’ll find the right person soon enough. He doesn’t know about the beard.
I open my mouth to tell him of Mr. Chicken, but I can’t. I don’t want to whine. I want to show Mr. Yamoto that I can be in control of the restaurant. And getting special attention makes me queasy. So I tell him that the new tempura wasabi mushrooms are selling really well.
“I knew it,” says Mr. Yamoto who is always trying to develop odd new menu items.
He pats my hand when I leave and tells me to keep up the good work.
When I open the door to my apartment the air smells heavy and greasy even though I just had a ham sandwich for dinner. I rub my slight chin stubble, the prickly bits that are apparent around this time in the evening. Sometimes I shave twice a day, once in the morning and once after dinner, even if I’m just going to stay home and watch television. It’s reassuring to stand in the bathroom with my electric razor and run my hand over my smooth chin, know that a moment before it had been rough.
Mr. Chicken is back at Golden Lotus the next day, staring at people with a renewed sort of meanness. After he buys his third box of chicken bits I approach his table again.
“Sir,” I say, “we value you as a customer but ask you stop staring at people.”
Mr. Chicken squints up at me. “If I want to look at other people and have them look at me, what’s wrong with that?”
“We do not tolerate hostility toward other customers in this restaurant,” I say.
Mr. Chicken harrumphs.
Ten minutes later, when Mr. Chicken is on his second apple turnover, a woman comes up to report that he’s been looking at her so intensely that she lost her appetite.
I march back to his table.
“Sir,” I say, “I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
“No,” he says, glaring at me.
“Sir,” I say again, “if you don’t leave we may have to resort to more drastic measures.”
“Go ahead,” he says.
We stare at each other. His eyes are hard and the color of cocoa. After a few moments I nod at him curtly.
“Very well,” I say and troop back behind the counter. Half of my employees are cowering in the break room and worrying over what he is thinking, what he might do, if he looks like the sort of guy who’d drive his car into a fast food restaurant. I tell them that they watch too much television and give myself one more day to think of something before calling Mr. Yamoto.
In the morning I’m running late and don’t shave, go through day with a bit of blonde stubble. I’m a little nervous about it, but the beard is pretty much invisible even to me, the roughness only apparent when I touch my face. During my lunch break I decide to start staring at Mr. Chicken. He wants people to look at him so I do, sit at a table across from his and fold my hands and focus my gaze on his flushed face. He glances at me and then looks away, stares at others who are more willing to become uncomfortable. I rub my stubble as I stare and for once it feels kind of neat, rough and scratchy, mirrors my mood.
The next day I hit the snooze button three too many times, can’t do anything but throw on clothes and run out the door, so the stubble stays. It itches a little and is visible if someone is standing really close to me. Mr. Chicken doesn’t look at me but seems angrier than usual. I swear he’s the reason why five customers get out of line and go to the restaurant next door. While I watch them walk out without buying anything, I decide to grow out my beard. I will make Mr. Chicken stare at me so he won’t look at anyone else. I’ll shock him, scare him, show him I don’t look like everybody else, either, but that doesn’t mean I go around and make little kids cry.
This plan seems perfectly brilliant for four hours until I leave work and am standing in line at the grocery and realize that the rest of the world will see my beard, too. I glance from side to side to see who is watching, but the cashier doesn’t even give me a second glance.
I have been shaving every day since I was fourteen years old, since the beard started growing and my mother found me in the bathroom rubbing my chin. She screamed and dragged my father in. He showed me how to use an electric razor. My mother bought me one of my own the next day.
“You’re already shaving your legs,” she sighed. “We’ll try not to think of this as being that different.”
Mom was always the optimist.
I had friends in high school but never dated. Easier that way. I never wanted anyone looking at me, knew the girls who didn’t shave their legs and arms were teased something awful. They didn’t care, but I did, fretted constantly about what people would say if they knew I had a beard. When you look like everyone else, you don’t really think about how you can stand in a group of people and have no one pay much attention to you. Maybe some days you want to dye your hair pink or wear weird clothing but it’s easy to take off, easy to fit in again when you want to. When you need to. It’s when you don’t look like everyone else that you realize how important it is.
By day four I’m getting used to not shaving even though the beard still isn’t that apparent. Every time I reach for my razor I bite my lip, tell myself just one day longer. I’ve always had a certain pride in being able to conceal my beard, in knowing that nobody’s the wiser unless I go out of my way to tell them about it. But it’s rarely good when I do. I repeat to myself that maybe my stylist is right and I just need to get used to it.
Mr. Chicken is still averting his gaze from me and making customers uncomfortable. I worry that if my plan doesn’t work soon we’ll start losing a lot of business to the fast food restaurants on either side of us. We’re the only one with fried ice cream and fried wasabi mushrooms, but they aren’t worth braving the glare of a fat guy.
After I haven’t shaved for a week, my employees are so freaked out that they forget to be scared of Mr. Chicken. I have to call a meeting after the lunch rush and explain it, how the hair started growing when I hit puberty and I’ve just recently stopped shaving.
“I think it’s cool,” says one of my female employees.
“It’s kind of gross,” another mutters.
“I’d date a girl with a beard,” says one of the guys, but he’s the sort who always brown-noses so I don’t know if I can take him seriously.
When Mr. Chicken comes in for lunch I sit one table away and glare at him over my coffee. With the beard slight but apparent he keeps glancing at me, blinking, looking away, looking back. Other customers are looking at me, too, but I hope I’m not as off-putting as Mr. Chicken. No one seems to leave because of me.
After work I go to have a drink at the bar two blocks from my apartment. Part of me wants to try out the beard. The other part really needs a drink. I order a cosmopolitan and sit at the bar watching guys watch me. Because it’s a little dim they can’t see the beard at first. I know they’ve spied it when their eyes get wide.
The guy who sits next to me and orders a Guinness is wearing a polo shirt.
“So,” he says, “is that beard or just really good makeup?”
“It’s a beard,” I say.
“Wow,” he says and pauses. “Wow.”
This is the extent of our conversation, but to his credit he sits beside me until he’s finished his beer. We’re both watching the soccer match on the television above the bar.
“Well,” he says, “have a good night.”
“You, too,” I say. I order another cosmopolitan and glance sideways at this group of three guys sitting in a booth at the far wall, whispering and looking over at me every once in a while. I start wondering what kind of guy is going to find a beard attractive on a woman. I could either find the really open-minded ones or the weirdoes who think it would be cool to have a bunch of kids with beards.
After a couple more minutes one of the guys from the booth comes over and nods at me. “We really like your beard,” he says. “Very well trimmed.” He’s smiling.
“Thanks,” I say and nod. I have no idea whether he’s being serious or sarcastic but I’ve always been terrible at judging such things. The guy returns to his friends and they all look over to me and one of them gives a little wave. I wave back and then watch more soccer. I don’t leave the bar until after they’ve gone. They were probably sincere but I don’t feel like taking chances.
At home I wash my face and brush my teeth and wash my face a second time to get out the toothpaste that stuck in the beard. It’s an odd sensation to be growing it out. A weight has been lifted. I don’t have to hide it anymore. A weight has been added. The way most people look at me now, I might as well have hair growing all over my body.
On my day off I go to Hairyette’s for advice on beard maintenance. It’s still a little stubby and I have a sort of lumberjack look. My stylist tells me that in another week or two it will look much better, silkier. It just takes patience.
“You may never want to be clean shaven again,” she says.
Her clients say the beard suits me, but they are the sort of people who are used to bearded women and probably like the aesthetic.
When I look in the mirror I’m still not sure. I’m getting used to it the way people get used to a new haircut. It looks really strange at first, but somehow starting the beard, having it, makes it easier to keep growing.
Mr. Chicken grimaces the next day when I sit at the table next to him. Customers are now looking at him and me. I’m stealing his limelight. This wasn’t what I’d originally intended, but perhaps if Mr. Chicken gets pissed enough, he’ll leave my restaurant alone and find someone else to bother.
Even though many of my employees say they don’t mind the beard, a week after our chat in the break room, the girl who didn’t like the beard quits.
“It isn’t about the beard,” she says, but she doesn’t look at me while she’s saying it.
I don’t work the register anymore, don’t even fill in when we’re short, just keep myself in the background except when I go on break and sit next to Mr. Chicken. Some customers smile at me. Others look horrified. Most of those are female. Women are scared of facial hair. We must bleach it or shave it or pull it out. I know that all too well.
When I go to Mr. Yamoto’s apartment for my weekly restaurant report I can feel every heartbeat in my fingertips. He opens the door and smiles then frowns then cocks his head.
“New look?’ he says and steps to the side so I can walk in. I explain how I’ve always had facial hair but kept it shaved. Mr. Yamoto plops gracefully in a pea green overstuffed chair.
“You don’t think it will make the restaurant lose business?” he says. “It might prove distracting to customers.”
“Or it might bring them in,” I say with a hopeful smile even though it’s a dumb idea.
Mr. Yamoto deepens his frown.
“I’m staying in the background, really,” I say. “The employees aren’t bothered by the beard. I’ve never grown it out before. I want to try this.”
“Can’t you try it when you have a week’s vacation?” he says.
“It’s not a problem for anyone,” I lie. “Really.”
Mr. Yamoto folds his thick hands together and looks down at them for a moment.
“I’ll have to think about this,” he says. “It’s a restaurant and appearance is important.”
“Okay,” I say, “okay.”
Mr. Yamoto is a believer in consistency, you have to be if you own a restaurant, so I’m glad he’s giving me a chance. If I hadn’t been working for him for so long I know he’d make me shave it off without a second thought.
The following day, Mr. Chicken and Mr. Yamoto arrive at almost the same time. They both order a box of chicken bits and sit with two tables between them.
I go out to speak with Mr. Yamoto when I take my break.
“I haven’t been down to the restaurant for a time,” he says. “I wanted to see how things were doing.” Meaning he wanted to see how people were reacting to me.
Mr. Chicken is glaring at both of us, his angry eyes boring holes into our table. All attention in the restaurant is focused on us — the former sumo wrestler and the bearded lady — and away from him. After a few minutes Mr. Chicken stands and plods to the counter. He’s there an awfully long time. When he returns he’s carrying two trays, both towers of cardboard boxes. It’s more food than he usually eats — eight boxes of chicken bits, four fish sandwiches, three apple turnovers, three cherry turnovers, three sides of wasabi mushrooms, three cartons of spicy onion rings, six fried ice creams. Mr. Chicken unfolds a napkin with a snap of his wrist, lays it across his lap, and starts eating, really eating, cramming chicken bits and onions rings and mushrooms into his mouth with his fat hands at such a rate I wonder if he’s even chewing. Everyone is staring at him — me and Mr. Yamoto and all of the employees and all of the customers and it’s so disgusting and so fascinating no one can look away. He rips the turnovers and stuffs half in each cheek, eats the fried ice cream in three large bites, smearing food across his face. We’re all gaping, can smell the cloud of sweat and grease around his body.
I don’t know how long it takes Mr. Chicken to finish everything. Maybe two minutes, maybe five or ten. It feels like a really long and really short period of time and there is complete silence in the restaurant. No one is placing any orders. No one else is even eating. We’re all just staring. When Mr. Chicken has finished everything and there is just a pile of boxes on his two trays, he wipes his mouth with a napkin, stands up, and promptly throws up everything on the golden tile floor.
We’re still staring.
Mr. Chicken plops back down and starts crying, his mouth gaping in soundless sobs.
Half of my employees run for gallons of ammonia and bleach and mops.
Mr. Yamoto stands up and walks around Mr. Chicken’s table, touches his shoulder, and it may be my imagination but I think Mr. Chicken leans toward him slightly. Mr. Yamoto daubs Mr. Chicken’s eyes very gently with a grease-stained paper napkin.
I finger my beard. It is starting to become silkier as it gets longer, the hairs not so short and hard. I don’t know how long I’ll keep it, probably shave it off eventually, but for now it feels kind of nice.