Sunday, February 26, 2006


Long ago and far away, when men wore eye-make up and sequins in a world known as “The Eighties” —Cupcake lived for a few months in a hotel in the Scottish Highlands.

Summer nights are long in Scotland. The sun doesn’t set until 11:00 PM, and it’s back again at 3:00 AM. That only leaves 4 hours to get into the sort of mischief that usually accompanies a night of drinking. And in a small town in Scotland, there's not a lot else to do but drink and look for mischief.

Cupcake was living in the hotel because she’d got a job as a waitress. How this came about is unimportant. It was a small town, very pretty, but full of people who had never lived anywhere but a small town. Cupcake soon learned that some people viewed foreigners, even (or perhaps especially) Americans, as exotic, interesting specimens. And others viewed them with mistrust.

At any rate, Cupcake found her reception in the small town to be confusing. The locals were either fawning over her and over-the-top nice, or downright hostile.

But that’s not the point of this story. The point of the story is this.

The town was small, but had a steady tourist trade. Cupcake worked at the nicest hotel. The restaurant there was very posh, with full silver-service, very formal. Cupcake usually worked the breakfast shift, which was okay except when she was hung over. Then, the smell of kippers was particularly unappealing.

The dining room being as formal as it was, each breakfast came with toast delivered in a silver toast rack. Cupcake had never seen a toast rack before, and found this custom not only charming but also practical, as it keeps the toast from getting all squishy from the piece above it.

Now, in this particular hotel, all the toast was made by an old man named Terry. Making the toast was Terry’s entire job. Legend had it that Terry had worked in the hotel from the time he was a young boy. He was now in his eighties. Terry had been supposed to retired at 65, but when that day had come, it was discovered that poor Terry had no savings, no family and nowhere to go.

This being a small town and an old-fashioned hotel, the decision was made to keep him on. To justify the expense of his staying in the room he’d always lived in and continuing to eat all his meals in the staff dining room, he was awarded the job of making the toast.

Terry was not quite right in the head. At first Cupcake assumed that he was slightly senile, but she realized that more often than not, she smelled alcohol on him as he groped around at the toaster. He was a smidgen grumpy, though then again, she usually encountered him at 6:30 AM, and many people are not at their best at that time of day. So Cupcake was uncertain about the details of Terry's personality. But she was certain of one thing: he was not exactly overattentive to his personal hygiene.

Day after day, Cupcake would watch him struggling to keep up with the demand for toast. The toaster was nearly as old as Terry, a huge, tall machine where the toast was laid out standing up, to ride up as if in an elevator on a continuously moving belt which it rode past glimmering hot burners until, when it reached the top, it would somersault out the back of the machine. There, Terry would reach for it with his slow-moving fingers, put it in a rack and put it out for the staff to carry to the dining room.

This involved Terry touching the toast twice: once when he loaded the bread into toaster, and then again when he placed the toast into the rack. He touched it twice.

Cupcake was not sure, in the three months that she worked at this hotel, that Terry ever took a shower. He wore the same filthy, torn shirt day after day as he stood at the hot machine loading the toast. By the end of the breakfast shift, from the exertion of his labor and the heat of the toaster, Terry would be sweating profusely. Yet she never saw him looking as if he'd bathed or even tried to wash up.

For a long time after Cupcake left Scotland, she dreamed every night about this town and this hotel.

Some may think that’s because the mixed social reception she encountered there was puzzling and troubling, and she could never figure out if those who liked her liked her for herself or for her country. Ditto those who went out of their way to make sure she knew they disliked her.

Some may think it’s because those short nights of summer were so often intense with the passions of youth, as there Cupcake met a boy whose beauty dazzled her. (And Cupcake, faithful readers will know, is a fool for beauty.)

Still others may think that Cupcake’s genetic memory made her very cells reverberate with the beauty of the mountains and valleys. (The Highlands look remarkably like Vermont, where Cupcake’s treasured sanctuary is located. This is no coincidence. If the Highlands could be a mere 5 hour drive from New York City, Cupcake would have bought her home there.)

But the real reason that for lo these twenty years now, this town and this hotel haunted Cupcake’s sleep- and sometimes still her waking hours, is this: since her brief stay in this tiny hamlet, her stint as a waitress in a formal silver-service dining room where the waitstaff bowed stiffly as they served the meals—She has never been able to eat toast in a restaurant without wondering if it was made by an ancient and filthy old man who hasn’t washed his hands in a very, very long time.