Ode to a Chippendale Dancer

By Virginia Parker Staat

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining;
show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
~ Anton Chekhov

When we travel into the city, we almost always stop by our favorite Italian restaurant. It is a third-generation bistro begun in 1938 in the home where the owners raised their children. At one time it was billed as one of the top five restaurants in the world to visit. Now, with his beloved Josephine gone and Sammy in his eighties, the restaurant still has excellent fare but not the five-star quality it once boasted. 

Over the nearly twenty years we have visited this restaurant, we have become more than acquaintances with Marcus, the veritable Eeyore of servers. When we ask how he is each time we visit, his response is always the same: “Can’t complain. Doesn’t do any good if I do.”

Marcus is about an inch shorter than I am. His most recognizable feature is his belly. It looks like a mega-scoop of gelato balanced on a sugar cone. With narrow hips in comparison, he uses suspenders to hold up his trousers. The elastic strains over his belly mountain, sliding to his sides and ultimately landing directly beneath each shoulder. 

I promise you… this man hasn’t seen his feet in years. His back arches so much that he looks like a woman full term with quadruplets. When he walks he wheezes; he groans; he shuffles. His swayed back causes him to shuffle so much that I often must squelch the desire to meet him halfway from the kitchen to help carry our plates to the table. 

My nephew described Marcus’ belly best. Marcus stood between my nephew and his fiancée while taking our orders. He later said, “When Marcus stood between us, it was like we were in separate rooms.”

Because Marcus has been at the restaurant so long, his role has expanded from simply being a waiter to overseeing many of the restaurant’s orders and deliveries. As an example, one day Marcus introduced us to the man who delivers the Italian sausages. The man was dressed in a three-piece black suit, white shirt, black tie, and Fedora. We speculated for weeks whether a Mafia remnant still survives in Houston.

As a result of Marcus being so involved in the restaurant’s affairs, he and owner Sammy have differing opinions on how to run the place. Since David and I often arrive before the lunch crowd, we have witnessed several heated discussions between Marcus and Sammy. They are typically Italian… a flambé of emotions with arms waving and curt shouting. During the first such exchange we experienced – which took place a mere fifteen feet from our table – we felt like we were in the midst of a domestic quarrel. After all these years, we now just feel like part of the family, particularly when both sides offer their apologies after the event and tell us why the other was wrong.

Yet in spite of all the drama, groaning, and shuffling, Marcus is extremely endearing. He is earthy and affable, like a glass of robust house Chianti with a flamboyant aftertaste. He recognizes patrons and asks about their lives. He is the preferred server of the old cronies, men in their eighties and older who gather weekly at their own table, each asking for separate checks. I have heard dozens of couples ask for one of Marcus’ tables. He is, after all, a fixture at this restaurant. He even has a cot and television in the back so he can nap between the lunch and dinner crowds.

We have known Marcus so long that he often pulls up a chair beside our table, telling us the current sad tale of his life as we crunch the cucumbers in our salad. Of course, when other patrons arrive, he shuffles off to serve them, leaving us hanging mid-story. With the arriving entrées, filling of a water glass, or handling the check, however, Marcus continues to embellish until we are satisfied.

About two years ago when we visited, Marcus was even more brooding than usual. A dispute with the owner soon erupted over a misplaced candelabra. After both had settled down, we asked Marcus why he looked so glum. He told us his closest brother was dying from misdiagnosed lung cancer. He explained that when his father left the family, it was Marcus and this brother who left school to support their mother and two younger siblings. Marcus continued, explaining that he was so mad at his father’s abandonment that he took his frustration out at the gym. He would sit on the rowing machine and row for hours. 

His honed physique soon caught the attention of a dance group. Marcus announced that he was recruited by the Chippendales and spent the next five years dancing in their traveling show. I looked up at his receding hairline, each side in a race to see which could first reach the growing bald spot on his crown. Our eyes met through our respective glasses, his even thicker than my own. Marcus playfully tossed his head and pretended to brush long hair from his shoulders. “Hard to imagine, isn’t it?” 

“Really, Marcus?” was all I could utter. I felt like a jumbled swirl of capellini, hot and sticky, had just dropped in my lap. 

Marcus stood next to me, his hand on the back of my chair and that prodigious belly at my eye level. Surely his belly button was an outie. The thought of a G-string suddenly crept into the recesses of my mind. I looked at my bite of redfish, dredged in pecans and smothered in white wine sauce. The fork suddenly felt heavy in my hand. 

Marcus was called away at just that moment. David and I were left to gaze at our plates. We both took the remainder of our lunch home in to go boxes. It was a reminder to me that everyone has a remarkable life story. Marcus was no different. But a Chippendale dancer?

The stories we write have the opportunity to show or tell what is most important to us. Telling is explaining. Showing, however, builds emotion, intrigue, and a reader’s connection to our words. Could you more clearly see Marcus’ belly with the comparisons I made than if I had simply told you that his was the biggest belly I had ever seen?

Showing rather than telling often employs our using similes, metaphors, and analogies in our writing. Each is used to make comparisons and evoke emotion in our readers. Similes create a comparison by using the words like or as, as in “crazy like a fox.” Metaphors directly refer to one thing by mentioning another, as in “the snow was a white blanket.”Analogies are a bit more complex and compare a more difficult concept to another more simple concept, as in “as useful as rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.”

Showing draws on our five senses. In Stein on Writing, Sol Stein explains, “Showing means having characters do things that excite our interest, making those pages visual, letting us see what happens firsthand.” For me, Anton Chekov said it best, “A writer should seize upon small details, arranging them so that the reader will see an image in his mind after he closes his eyes.”

After months of traveling this year, we visited our favorite little restaurant several weeks ago. The air immediately felt different; the umami somehow gone. The old cronies were still at their large round table, talking about aches, pains, and politics. We scooted past them to sit in the adjacent room. An Ichabod Crane of a man waited on us. He was tall and thin and most efficient, like the old schoolmaster himself. He provided us with menus and water almost immediately. He spoke loudly, perhaps because he had been waiting on the old, mostly deaf men. 

Midway through our meal, I finally summoned the courage to ask about Marcus. Our server told us rather sharply that Marcus no longer worked there. His eyes, however, softened at my expression. He leaned toward me and almost whispered, “Marcus died about four months ago… from a heart attack.”

Our stories are worth telling, however, we must show our readers what is important to us… and make it so important that they clearly see an image in their mind after they close their eyes. I hope I have done this for you with Marcus and his story. It is in his honor that I write this… an ode to the only Chippendale dancer I’ve ever known. Rest in peace, my friend.