Chautauqua Falls, New York
One afternoon in September 1959 a young woman factory worker was
walking home on the towpath of the Erie Barge Canal, east of the
small city of Chautauqua Falls, when she began to notice that she
was being followed, at a distance of about thirty feet, by a man in
a panama hat.
A panama hat! And strange light-colored clothes, of a kind not
commonly seen in Chautauqua Falls.
The young woman's name was Rebecca Tignor. She was married, her
husband's name Tignor was one of which she was terribly vain.
So in love, and so childish in her vanity, though not a girl any
longer, a married woman a mother. Still she uttered "Tignor" a
dozen times a day.
Thinking now as she began to walk faster He better not be following
me, Tignor won't like it.
To discourage the man in the panama hat from wishing to catch up
with her and talk to her as men sometimes, not often but sometimes,
did, Rebecca dug the heels of her work shoes into the towpath,
gracelessly. She was nerved-up anyway, irritable as a horse
tormented by flies.
She'd almost smashed her hand in a press, that day. God damn she'd
And now this. This guy! Sent him a mean look over her shoulder, not
to be encouraged.
No one she knew?
Didn't look like he belonged here.
In Chautauqua Falls, men followed her sometimes. At least, with
their eyes. Most times Rebecca tried not to notice. She'd lived
with brothers, she knew "men." She wasn't the shy fearful
little-girl type. She was strong, fleshy. Wanting to think she
could take care of herself.
But this afternoon felt different, somehow. One of those wan warm
sepia-tinted days. A day to make you feel like crying, Christ knew
Not that Rebecca Tignor cried. Never.
And: the towpath was deserted. If she shouted for help . . .
This stretch of towpath she knew like the back of her hand. A
forty-minute walk home, little under two miles. Five days a week
Rebecca hiked the towpath to Chautauqua Falls, and five days a week
she hiked back home. Quick as she could manage in her damn clumsy
Sometimes a barge passed her on the canal. Livening things up a
little. Exchanging greetings, wisecracks with guys on the barges.
Got to know a few of them.
But the canal was empty now, both directions.
God damn she was nervous! Nape of her neck sweating. And inside her
clothes, armpits leaking. And her heart beating in that way that
hurt like something sharp was caught between her ribs.
"Tignor. Where the hell are you."
She didn't blame him, really. Oh but hell she blamed him.
Tignor had brought her here to live. In late summer 1956. First
thing Rebecca read in the Chautauqua Falls newspaper was so nasty
she could not believe it: a local man who'd murdered his wife, beat
her and threw her into the canal somewhere along this very-same
deserted stretch, and threw rocks at her until she drowned. Rocks!
It had taken maybe ten minutes, the man told police. He had not
boasted but he had not been ashamed, either.
Bitch was tryin to leave me, he said.
Wantin to take my son.
Such a nasty story, Rebecca wished she'd never read it. The worst
thing was, every guy who read it, including Niles Tignor, shook his
head, made a sniggering noise with his mouth.
Rebecca asked Tignor what the hell that meant: laughing?
"You make your bed, now lay in it."
That's what Tignor said.
Rebecca had a theory, every female in the Chautauqua Valley knew
that story, or one like it. What to do if a man throws you into the
canal. (Could be the river, too. Same difference.) So when she'd
started working in town, hiking the towpath, Rebecca dreamt up a
way of saving herself if/when the time came.
Her thoughts were so bright and vivid she'd soon come to imagine it
had already happened to her, or almost. Somebody (no face, no name,
a guy bigger than she was) shoved her into the muddy-looking water,
and she had to struggle to save her life. Right away pry off
your left shoe with the toe of your right shoe then the other
quick! And then— She'd have only a few seconds, the heavy
work shoes would sink her like anvils. Once the shoes were off
she'd have a chance at least, tearing at her jacket, getting it off
before it was soaked through. Damn work pants would be hard to get
off, with a fly front, and buttons, and the legs kind of tight at
the thighs, Oh shit she'd have to be swimming, too, in the
direction the opposite of her murderer . . .
Christ! Rebecca was beginning to scare herself. This guy behind
her, guy in a panama hat, probably it was just coincidence. He
wasn't following her only just behind her.
Not deliberate only just accident.
Yet: the bastard had to know she was conscious of him, he was
scaring her. A man following a woman, a lonely place like
God damn she hated to be followed! Hated any man following her with
his eyes, even.
Ma had put the fear of the Lord in her, years ago. You would not
want anything to happen to you, Rebecca! A girl by herself, men
will follow. Even boys you know, you can't trust.
Even Rebecca's big brother Herschel, Ma had worried he might do
something to her. Poor Ma!
Nothing had happened to Rebecca, for all Ma's worrying.
At least, nothing she could remember.
Ma had been wrong about so many damn things . . .
Rebecca smiled to think of that old life of hers when she'd been a
girl in Milburn. Not yet a married woman.
Excerpted from THE GRAVEDIGGER'S DAUGHTER © Copyright
2011 by Joyce Carol Oates. Reprinted with permission by Harper
Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. All rights
The Gravedigger's Daughter