The Triumphant Return of Maggie Pancake
BY JENNY ROBERTSON
Three girls walked into a bar in Lumbertown. It had been ten years since Maggie Johanssen, thirty-one, last lived in this town or opened this door, which was painted with one flashy silver word: Buoy. They’d always called it The Boy, and in college when they were back in town on Christmas or summer break, they’d ask each other, You want to hit The Boy tonight? This sultry late-June evening was the first of Maggie’s week-long visit home, and the ninth anniversary of Josie’s death. The breeze from the opening door blew Maggie’s new bangs into her eyes, and she silently cursed the stylist who’d said they would act as a frame for her round face.
Following close behind Maggie was Deb Cherniak. Deb, mother to a third-grader and a four-year-old, had taken forever to get ready. They’d had to wait in her living room with her husband and kids while she tromped around upstairs, audibly cursing. Finally, she came downstairs wearing a pair of dress pants and her least-faded red shirt, and said, “Who’s ready to go to a PTA meeting?” Her husband had smiled and said, “Don’t have club clothes anymore, huh?” as though motherhood had been a cruel trick he’d played on her, one that had consequences she hadn’t quite yet grasped.
Joanna Berkin brought up the rear, spun in place on her lady lawyer shoes while using her remote to secure her car. It beeped, one lone goose honk. “Good to go, my dears,” Joanna said. “That’s the last responsible thing we need to do tonight.”
Inside the Buoy the sunlight and all sense of the outside world disappeared. There were a few high windows scattered about, but years of cigarette smoke had given them a hazy sheen. Through them, the poplars and jack pines outside appeared unreal and wavy. Vertical knotty pine boards lined the walls, the tables close together and branded with the names of light beers. The bar itself was long and golden-brown, with two dark-haired men leaning their elbows on its bumpered edge. The TV above the bar replayed past glories of Minnesota Golden Gophers hockey.
“Wild night we picked,” Deb said.
The Buoy hadn’t changed at all, though entering it at thirty-one Maggie felt out-of-place. She remembered the old expectation and excitement, but just last month her fiancé, Roy, a student at the clown college in Baraboo, had dumped her for a classmate whose stage name was Sunshine Flappy-Pants, and now Maggie felt more exhausted than hopeful. She peeked around the corner at the stage and dance floor. Absolutely empty. “Maybe everybody left when we stopped coming,” she said.
“Or maybe it’s six o’clock on a Tuesday night,” Joanna said. She dropped her purse on a table, said, “Order me a virgin margarita. I have to pee.”
“Joanna always has to pee,” Deb told Maggie. “Announces it like she’s the first woman in the world to get pregnant.” Although Deb’s two young children wore her down on a daily basis, she wanted another. Though her husband Joe argued otherwise, which, Deb claimed, made her uterus cramp so much she had to console it, saying, “Don’t worry, he’ll change his mind.”
Maggie walked to the bar and placed their order. While the bartender shook the virgin marg, pulled a Grain Belt for Maggie, and mixed a Long Island iced tea for Deb, the two guys lifted their heads and stared at her as though they were deer and she a forest intruder. Men did that a lot, Maggie thought, stopped their grazing and conversation to look at a woman, with no sense that it wasn’t polite to stare at a stranger, especially at close range.
Her body shifted in response to their eyes. She sucked in her gut, rolled her shoulders back. Earlier tonight, in her old bedroom at her parents’ house, which had been turned into a craft room and was filled with her mother’s slightly creepy multi-colored velour teddy bears, she’d liked the idea of appearing hot, on the loose with her long-time friends.
“Don’t you look beautiful?” her mother had said, before Maggie left the house. “Dan, honey, look at our Maggie Pancake.”
Her parents, high school sweethearts, believed the world was good and just, and their daughter, a brilliant and lovely go-getter. In the face of their unrelenting optimism, Maggie never had the heart to share her disappointments with them. Kids in school had called her Maggie Pancake in honor of her non-existent chest, but to this day her dad believed she’d earned the moniker in a blueberry pancake eating contest. Three weeks ago, when she’d called off her wedding, she’d considered telling her parents that a batch of contaminated face paint had caused Roy to forget who she was. She’d imagined them shedding actual tears for poor Roy, and never once questioning her story. Instead, just this one time, she broke down and told them everything: the painted beauty of the girl clown; the way Roy’s weekends were increasingly booked with children’s birthday parties; how she waited for the clown car to return home later and later on Saturday nights, until one night it didn’t arrive at all.
After being jilted, Maggie knew she could use some positive attention, but there was something about these guys, eyes that didn’t require her consent or participation. I don’t care what you think about my ass, she thought. She stared back at them, her mouth set in the disapproving teacher look she’d cultivated over the past five years at Milwaukee’s Grover Pond Elementary.
The two men laughed, said something under their breath, then raised their drinks to her. The big hairy one looked like a Toad. Or a Bear. A Toad-Bear, and the other, the dark-haired skinny one with the leer, a Mongoose. Not completely freakish, she supposed, not animal men. Ten years ago, they might have been the kind of boys she and Deb and Joanna — and Josie, too — would’ve rubbed up against on the crowded dance floor. Would’ve kissed after too many drinks, so tipsy they could barely stand, before they were pulled out the door by whichever bored cohort had drawn the DD straw.
But then again, ten years ago these men would’ve smiled at Maggie, and not relied on grim tractor beam stares to draw her in.
One New Year’s Eve, when they were twenty-one, they’d gotten together in Duluth, where Joanna was living. The three of them and Josie. Once the drinks took hold, they’d charged out to the dance floor, seeing who could move the most outrageously to “Pour Some Sugar on Me.” They had felt powerful that night, unbreakable, their friendship a protective spell.
But that New Year’s Eve, no one picked Josie. And the rest of them, mesmerized by the undulations of guys’ bodies, didn’t notice until it was too late that Josie was sobbing alone in the bathroom.
“Am I that ugly?” she’d asked Maggie, her wet, blotchy face in the mirror bracketed on either side by perfectly made-up girls avidly applying more make-up. “Am I unlovable?”
In the middle of that room of stage-ready girls, Maggie held her best friend like a child, whispered no no you’re beautiful, they’re idiots, just idiots until Josie stopped.
Here, several beer mirrors graced the Buoy’s walls. Mirrors etched with leaping silver-sided pike, mouths open and exposing rows of sawteeth in their elongated jaws. And bar posters that featured a pack of blondes in tight half-top Vikings jerseys and cutoff jean shorts, white ermine earflap hats and matching Sorel boots. The models seemed to mock Maggie with their tacky perfection as they leaned over their snowmobiles, their long tanned legs goosebump free even though it was winter.
The bartender, Tammy Detterlau, younger sister to a classmate of theirs, was still rocking the claw bang that had been a rite of passage in northern Minnesota in 1989. A whole generation of girls had learned — with mousse and spray, perm and pick — how to arrest a tsunami mid-crest over their foreheads, immovable until the next shower.
Tammy said, “You want anything to eat?”
“Mozzarella sticks,” Maggie said.
In Milwaukee, after Roy had moved out, waving good-bye from his packed station wagon with one silently apologetic hand, she’d become inexplicably enraged by the flyers pinned to the co-op bulletin board: Processed meat causes cancer. Inhumane milk causes cancer. Your negative emotions and spiritual stuntedness cause cancer. If a person had walked into that co-op and said, “I have cancer,” a hundred shoppers would have looked down their noses and thought, “No wonder. What did you do?” Maggie had wanted to start shouting about Josie, who’d, for one adolescent year, subsisted only on salads. Miss 400-Yard-Dash Champion. Miss Brown Rice. Instead, Maggie snubbed the co-op and started ordering in: egg rolls and pizza, gyros and cheeseburgers. At the school’s employee party at the Bierstube she’d drunk beer from a glass boot and stuffed herself on kielbasa. Then she’d danced it up with Ed Moore, one of the third grade teachers, who’d been flirting with her all year.
“Hope you like lime and salt, baby,” Joanna said as she took a deep pull on her drink.
“Do you miss the tequila?” Maggie asked. Though she was in no hurry, she believed that, eventually, she would be a French kind of mom, sipping red wine under an arbor at lunch, for the iron. But Ed, the third grade teacher, had toddler twins and a wife at home. He who would never in this earthly life take her to France.
“Tequila and I haven’t been friends for a while,” Joanna said.
“We’re so lucky,” Deb said, tearing up out of nowhere and touching Joanna’s belly, though she’d always hated it when people did that to her. “To be able to go through this. Ooh! I felt a little jump.”
“Because Josie can’t,” Maggie said, finishing Deb’s thought. “She would’ve been such a great mom.”
Joanna winced, removed Deb’s hand from her belly. “Sorry. I’ve got gas,” she said, and reached for a mozzarella stick. “Well, I’m going to be a mom whether I’m any good at it or not.”
“You’re going to be great,” Maggie and Deb both said.
“And for sure I’m not going to stick around the house like you did, Deb,” she said. “I’d go nuts.”
“It’s not for everybody,” Deb said, although she had said a million times that putting babies in daycare set them back emotionally for the rest of their lives. And was no doubt responsible for a good part of this nation’s sociopathology.
“What do you think Josie would be doing right now?” Maggie said.
“She’d have two kids, like me,” Deb said.
“Naw. She didn’t want to start as early as you,” Joanna said. Deb had James when she was twenty-three. She’d been pregnant with him when Josie died, and had told Maggie she still wondered if all the crying she’d done that year made the boy the overly serious and sensitive kid that he was. An eight-year-old cub scout way too concerned about merit badges. Maybe she’d skewed his stress hormones in utero. She worried about that, too.
“She’d have been Superwoman,” Maggie said, and they all nodded. “Sugar cookies and homemade costumes and straight A’s.”
“And she’d still hold down a great job.”
“And they’d take vacations to national parks and never argue.”
“And she’d keep it all in scrapbooks,” Deb said, a notoriously passionate scrapbooker. She’d made one for each child, and she often called Maggie on nights when Joe and the kids were asleep, after she’d drunk lots of chardonnay and looked through all the pictures, weepy because her kids were never going to be so small again.
“Hey ladies.” The Mongoose pulled up a chair between Deb and Maggie, and Maggie moved over out of politeness. “What are we up to tonight?”
We, Maggie thought. So slimy.
“We are old friends catching up,” she said, the schoolteacher talking to the student, though still she found herself sitting straighter against the chair back so as not to minimize her boobs.
“Ooh, that’s great,” the Mongoose said. “You ladies from around here?”
Joanna stared at the guy. “I’m from Preglandia,” she said, and leaned back to display her swollen belly.
“Yeah, you probably shouldn’t be at a bar,” he said, then made a head-to-toe scan of Deb. “Why don’t you girls come sit with us?
“I don’t think so,” Joanna said.
“We’re good,” Maggie said. “Thanks, anyway.”
While they were sipping their second drinks, and before all the mozzarella sticks had been eaten, Tammy offered them another round.
“From the guys at the bar,” she said.
Deb laughed. “Why not? They think we’re hot mamas.”
Tammy set down their drinks. “Here’s to the moms.”
“Yucch,” Joanna said, and pushed away her third virgin margarita. “I’m sorry, baby says no more lime. Water when you get a chance, Hon.”
Because Deb and Joanna kept her apprised of local gossip, Maggie knew that Tammy’s youngest boy, born premature, had had health problems ever since. Her ex had left town soon after the spaghetti supper the town had thrown to cover the boy’s medical costs, and the children’s grandmother watched them on the nights Tammy worked. “How’s Tyler these days?” Deb asked.
“He’s a terror,” Tammy said. “The medicine’s working too well — you can’t slow him down.”
“Isn’t that the truth,” Deb said. She always tried to equate other children’s behavior with that of her own, even when they had nothing in common. A form of mothering solidarity.
The bar gradually began to fill. A few people fresh off the lake, sunburns staking claim to their skin. Groups of barely legal kids filtered in, and then the band, three men with Stratocasters and mullets, about their parents’ age, started to warm up.
Joanna secured the dart board, said, “If we don’t do something I’m going to fall asleep.”
“Aw…I wish you could drink,” Deb said, sucking on her last ice cubes. “I’m starting to feel pretty good.”
Maggie’s first dart barely hit the rim. “Still got it.” She couldn’t help looking around, though no one was watching, not even their old Civics teacher sitting next to the Mongoose and the Toad-Bear. Old Mr. Graybeck, who’d always had a line of yellow chalk on his crotch whenever he turned from the blackboard to address the class. She walked over and patted him on the shoulder.
“Hi there, Mr. Graybeck. Remember me?”
He, who appeared to still be wearing that same elbow-patched sports jacket, turned and looked at her. “If it isn’t Maggie Johanssen, in the Buoy.” He didn’t seem all that surprised, even checked her out. “You’ve grown.”
“Yes. It’s all the cheese and beer in Milwaukee,” she said.
“And the sausages,” the Mongoose said. “You eat a lot of those?”
To her horror, Mr. Graybeck leaned back and laughed right in Maggie’s face, beer foam half-covering his grey-mustached lip.
“Okay, well, real nice to see you,” she said.
“Maggie.” Mr. Graybeck wiped his mouth and peered at her more soberly. “I saw your picture in the Lumbertown Gazette. You’re getting hitched soon, aren’t you? Congratulations.”
“Yeah,” she said. “That’s not happening. But thanks anyway, Mr. Graybeck.”
“Your turn,” Joanna said. “I’m whipping your drunk butts.”
“If you two didn’t still live here, I’d never come back,” Maggie said. She’d reached her peak buzz-luck a few throws ago. Eight, she’d think, and the dart would hit eight. Bull’s-eye, she thought, and the dart obeyed. But after her third beer, the darts arced out over the top of the board, clattered embarrassingly to the ground. “I’ll get it back,” she muttered. “I’ve just got to concentrate.”
Deb ordered herself and Maggie another drink, and then the bar fell into darkness as the band played “More Than a Feeling.” The stage show was lit by the same big can lights Maggie had directed onto their high school productions when she was part of the set-up crew. Blue, red, yellow, green. White smoke boiled out from a poor man’s fog machine — hot water over dry ice in two five-gallon buckets — and was blown toward the crowd with a box fan.
They sat out the first song, but when the men struck up “Let’s Go Crazy,” and the lead singer sang, “Dearly beloved, we have gathered here today,” Deb screeched, “On the floor, girls!” Maggie marveled at how each of them still had their own signature move. Even Joanna looked smooth, her style part marching band majorette, part snake charmer, exactly as it had been in high school. Deb had never been the most confident dancer, but the drinks seemed to inspire her, and she executed a few fancy foot slides and arm pumps. Soon they were surrounded by people, smooshed into a tighter circle.
Maggie was surprised to feel someone’s hands on her waist, plus an assertive pelvis pressed against her backside, the breath in her ear all cigarettes and whiskey. She was ready to ninja the windpipe of whoever it was, all the Single Girls Self-Defense at the Milwaukee Y about to unleash. Instead she thought, this was how it felt to be a friendly young thing, open to experience, which is when she turned and pushed the Toad-Bear away.
“You can’t just do that,” she said.
He shrugged. “I kind of had to.”
She gestured towards her friends, said, “We’re just here to have fun.”
“Right,” he said. “Me too.”
“Together,” she said, throwing her arms out wide again, more wildly this time.
“Right,” he said, and took a place in their circle and smiled like an idiot. Maggie shook her head and tried to ignore him.
It wasn’t long before the Mongoose sauntered over too, his hands held up in front of him like a featherweight champ, leaning back and leading with his hips. He stunk of Brut, just like Eddie Ogilvy, whose locker had been next to Maggie’s.
Deb must have forgotten that hard liquor had in the past led her to commit errors in judgment, because she held out her hand and the Mongoose took it and pulled her in close. Maggie wondered if Joe, driven mad by the scent of a rival male, would ravage Deb when she got home, disrobe her before she could even set down her keys on the entryway table. Maybe he’d throw her PTA blouse over the living room lamp, giving the room a bordello-like glow.
The Toad-Bear looked hopefully again at Maggie, who shook her head. “No thanks,” she said, and wondered if she should save Deb from the embarrassment that would surely find her tomorrow.
“Leave her be,” Joanna said into Maggie’s ear. “It’s harmless.” Joanna reached out to the Toad-Bear and held him middle school dance style, her hands on his shoulders, his hands on her hips, with plenty of room between for the swell of her growing belly.
“May I?” the Toad-Bear asked, and Joanna nodded. He held his hand flat on her stomach and kept it there until he felt the baby flip.
The band began to play an Otis Redding tune — “I don’t want no cream and sugar, ’cause I’ve got you, now darling” — and the couples all leaned into one another. The air was thick with the smell of sweat and dry ice. The fog made everyone appear all Bogie and Bergman, lovers doomed soon to be separated.
If the two clowns hadn’t run off to Baraboo together, Maggie would’ve worn a white dress this weekend. She and Roy had planned to get married in her parents’ yard. Her mother had embraced the circus theme, rented a red-and-white striped big tent, bought miles of elephant-shaped plug-in lights, and sewed a lion costume for their cockapoo, Franky. Her dad had built a giant tower of logs near the pond, and he’d planned to light it just before his band, Steel Dreaming, covered the White Album in its entirety.
Maggie walked back into the other room. Behind the bar, Tammy was a blur of movement, while two waitresses, who seemed to have appeared out of nowhere, waited anxiously for their drink orders.
“Tough night,” Maggie said to a tiny blonde hoisting a tray of drinks, who couldn’t get anyone to make way for her. “Let the lady through,” Maggie yelled, and pushed at a big mountain of a man until he focused his glazed eyes on Maggie’s face. “What?” he asked her, but moved aside, and the girl entered the foggy room under her tippy load.
Maggie knew she was drunk, everyone around her, even Mr. Graybeck, getting younger and younger, almost as young as the kindergartners in her class. Maybe she should pretend they were all five years old, that she was serving them chocolate milk and cookies, that soon they would nap. Or maybe she should duck behind the bar and help Tammy wash drink glasses. Build a pyramid of shiny tallboy glasses on a bar towel in front of Mr. Graybeck. Maybe she’d look different through all that refracting glass.
Doubting her ability to balance anything, Maggie instead found a seat in the shadows, her back against a wall, and watched her friends.
A few songs later, the Mongoose followed Deb and Maggie into the women’s bathroom, pressed Deb against the air dryer, and said he was a boy scout looking to get his bathroom-fucking merit badge.
“Quit it,” Deb said, in her best irritated mom voice, and slapped his stubbled cheek. “I’m a married woman.”
“Don’t worry, baby,” the Mongoose said, stilling her slapping hand with his own and play-biting the air between them. “I’ll get us some privacy. Nobody has to know.”
“Yes, this is the perfect private spot,” Maggie said. “Great idea, Mongoose.”
“Mongoose?” The Mongoose turned toward her with a sneer. “Oh, jealous, are we? Beat it, Chubby.”
“You,” Maggie said, low and serious, “you are the one who is leaving.”
Because by then the Mongoose had returned his attentions to poor, trapped Deb, his spindly legs spread in what he must have felt was a position of strength, Maggie easily landed a from-behind knee blow to his gnads. When he crumpled to the bathroom floor, hurt as a child, Maggie briefly regretted her attack and moved to help him. But he rose from the floor on his own, feet slipping in his haste to leave, although he slowed long enough to curse their mothers and all the generations of women who’d come before.
And then Deb puked: all those lovely Long Island iced teas, all those mozzarella sticks. And while Deb emptied her belly behind a stall door, Maggie leaned into the mirror and tried to bring her reflection into focus. But instead of her own face, she saw Josie’s, all the hair she’d lost in chemo returned, rich and brown, her bangs curled up tight like 1989.
“Looks like it’s just you and me, kid,” Maggie said, as she rested her fevered head against that of her cool, mirrored friend.
The next day, after a late brunch, they brought berry wine coolers, Josie’s favorite, to the cemetery. The syrupy malt alcohol burned their hungover stomachs, but each of them, even Joanna, drank one down. They poured the remainder, all three bottles, on the ground for Josie. Afterwards, they dropped Maggie off at her parents’ house.
“I’m so sorry,” Joanna said, gesturing to the monstrous bonfire tipi. “Roy’s a bastard.”
Deb nodded vigorously. “I knew he was wrong for you the minute I met him.”
Maggie could see the concern for her on their faces, and realized that concern had been there since Josie died. Josie had belonged to all of them, but she was Maggie’s first and only best friend, even now. They knew and she knew there would be no replacement.
Maggie shrugged in agreement and gave her friends a squeeze. “Thanks for the night out,” she said, and blew kisses as they drove away.
She needed a nap. Then she’d have enough energy to help her mother return the elephant lights. After dinner she’d douse the wood with gasoline, toss on a lit match, and let her parents tell her, over and over, how much they loved her. Somewhere in Wisconsin, the two clowns were happy or sad together, painting smiles and frowns on each other’s faces. Maggie would have her own circus, masks and carnival music, great wild beasts to tame, and a cockapoo, looking for all the world like a lion in his golden velour mane.