Tommy Chandler sat in the parking lot at the Valley Diner as though it were a safe haven against the impending storm. It wasn’t. It was just the first place to stop and he was early. Salesman’s habit.
Time Is on My Side churned out of the car radio. Loosening his sedately striped silk tie and slipping out of his woolen suit coat, he got out of the car and walked the length of the lot to stretch his legs. He recalled the times he’d walked here as a boy, eager to spend the few dollars he earned each week delivering the Ansonia Evening Sentinel. It was a great local newspaper while it lasted. It gave him his start in business. He wondered if kids still delivered the paper.
Leaving that thought behind, he peered through the lightly falling rain into the darkness of the Diner and recalled the days before it closed at night. When he was a kid and this was a factory town, the Diner had been open around the clock. The place was operated by the…what was their name? Greeks… Khronos….that’s what it was, Khronos, something like that. He had a kid who was a big deal on the high school football team, but he died or something, or was that somebody else?
Anyway, then the factories left and the place cut back its hours. He heard that Khronos sold out and moved to Florida and practically gave the place to the cook, some Mexican guy, or something like that. Then he died and the place went to Dolores Kearney. He knew the Kearney’s from the Assumption School. He heard she had a kid with Down syndrome who got married, and that Dolores married a guy from Seymour, a plumber.
Turning from the Diner, he took a deep breath and held it. This was his town. This is the place they would bring him back to when it was his turn to go. This place where they still called him Tommy.
Out of boredom, he carefully kicked the mud from the hand-sewn leather on his oxblood loafers and watched a pretty, thin girl in a waitress uniform and with a light sweater and no raincoat leap from a cab and dash through the light rain into the Diner. Then, seeing the procession approach through the cold, rain soaked streets, he straightened the nose of his silk tie around his neck, and slipped back behind the waiting warmth of the automobile’s black European leather seat. Turning the ignition, he slid the car into gear and joined the procession as the last car. It was, he thought, a long procession; they always are when you die young. When you die old, there are not enough people still alive who remember you to form a decent procession. That was his theory anyway.
They drove slowly through the streets. Appropriately, the Beatles song Yesterday melted out of the oldies station but it depressed him and he turned it off. The town was lifeless. Where were the vast herds of loud and laughing children who once roamed these streets? What became of the corner markets with their crooked floors and wooden counters, bent under the weight of those enormous, ancient cash registers with the white ivory keys? Places like Senesky’s with their hand stuffed kielbasa, and Nicoletti’s where the mozzarella was so fresh it dripped with warm milk. Like the children, they were gone and with them went the identity that was, to him anyway, the things that defined this place.
The mills were gone too. Closed and silent as coffins. They said the wages were too high and the unions wanted too much. The truth is, the profits were too low, and it was the bosses who wanted too much. When they left, they took everything with them, leaving behind a generation too proud to cry foul.
He thought that Maria looked good, considering the circumstances. How long had it been? Twenty-four years? He had not seen her in almost as many years as he had lived here. She was older and it showed in her face. He couldn’t remember Iggy Gallaher’s face anymore. It was a closed coffin. He pulled down the visor and looked into the mirror at his own face and noticed for the first time that he looked old, or at least older. Annoyed, he slapped the contraption shut.
Pulling himself away from his thoughts and trying to remember what Iggy looked like, he looked around him and realized he had stopped at a light. To his left was a vacant storefront. Wasn’t that where Giordano’s pizza was? What a shame.
He recalled a faded snap shot he had some place, in a box somewhere, of him, Iggy and Maria upstairs at Giordano’s pizza, where the booths had white tablecloths and silverware. Downstairs the tables were bare cold linoleum, and the forks and knifes were white plastic. The picture showed he and Iggy arm in arm, smiling broadly, proud of their new white shirts and new white ties, designed to match the new souls for their first communions.
Straightening his tie again and slipping his suit coat on, he followed the others into the modest house. He paused for a second to look over the Valley below, past the town that lay in near lifeless repose and strained to see the ocean that pushed brief, light winds of salt air around his face.
Holding the door for a couple he didn’t know, he slowly made his way inside, finding a spot between the parlor and the dining room to stand, feeling uncomfortable and exposed. He nodded and smiled to the few who cast a look his way and discreetly pulled his shirt cuff over his watch that was too expensive for the room.
It genuinely surprised him when a somber caterer piled tin trays of overcooked food onto the imitation pine table. Where were the old aunts who never learned to speak English? The ones permanently draped in black, shapeless dresses, rosaries tied to their wrists, scurrying back and forth from the kitchen with massive plates of peppers and onions and garlic salami? Where was the Grappa and the tiny cups of murky espresso? He reluctantly shuffled toward the table to pick and nibble bits of microwaved food, served on styrofoam plates.
Filling a paper cup with warm Coke, he retreated to his spot between the parlor and the dining room to wait for time to pass. After what seemed like an eternity, he placed his drink on top of the VCR, walked across the room, and tapped the young man on the shoulder.
“Michael,” he said, “I’m Thomas Chandler … I’m sorry for your troubles. He was too young to die.”
“Mr. Chandler, my dad talked about you a lot. I feel like I know you.”
“He talked about me?” Chandler asked quickly.
“Yeah, all the time, crazy Tommy Chandler. Did you really take a cop car for a joy ride?”
“No,” he lied. “And your mother?” meaning did she ever speak of him.
“Oh yeah, I’ll get her. I’ll tell her you’re leaving. She’s been with the funeral guy since we got back.”
“No, no, don’t. That’s fine.”
He gave the young man a final long look. Like his father, he wore an unmistakably Irish face. He had his mother’s dark eyes and dark hair. Chandler was elated and it showed in his eyes and in his growing smile. He had always relegated what they had done as a horrendous mistake but now, seeing this stunningly handsome young man, he realized that the creation of a life could never be a mistake.
He slowly shook the young man’s hand and reluctantly releasing it, he made his way out to the car, loosening his tie with his first step outside. He slipped off the coat and slid behind the wheel.
“Chandler!” Maria called across the growing density of the fog. He turned to watch Maria stroll from the darkness of the house into the gray light of the day and float, ghostlike, across the lawn and lean on his opened car door. Clad in black, her once handsome face was ghastly pale, which illuminated the redness of her sensuous full lips when she smiled at him. She said, “Eat and run, huh? Yeah, you only came for the food.” Having never lost his joy in the self-deprecating humor of his class, the working class, his return smile was spontaneous and genuine.
“Yeah,” he droned with a purposeful flatness as he handed her a plastic fork. “That and to steal your plastic ware. You caught me.”
She took the fork, held it against her ominous black dress, and rolled her eyes. “Yeah, I have to work and Ma doesn’t cook any more. Her arthritis, ya know?”
And at that her smile, that warm and welcoming smile, for some reason, vanished from her and an unsettling remoteness rudely elbowed it’s way between them.
“It was just easier to hire somebody, ya know there Chandler?” Without waiting for an answer, which piqued him slightly, she turned her full attention to the cars silver roof, she stroked a few raindrops from it, and she said approvingly, “Life is good I see.”
“No, not really.” He smiled with his best sardonic smile. “I stole it.”
She returned his smile quickly and it transformed her. For a second, only a second, the deep lines were gone from her face and her magnificent eyes, so resonant and lovely, flashed with life and then the look disappeared as unexpectedly as it arrived and she retreated to her detached spirit again.
“It was a long ways for you to come there Tommy. Thank you,” she said in a way that was not hers. “I didn’t expect to see you.”
He searched for acrimony in the last words and not finding any he used the moment to study her still beautiful, if drained almost insentient face. She looked tired, drained. That was to be expected. But it was more than that. There was an aura about her, a dissolute grimness really, that gave off a sense of defeat that had buried her and made her older than her years. She narrowed her eyes in a way that startled and concerned him. The disapproval for what she was must have shown through on his face. Realizing he was caught, he retreated into banality.
“Eliza saw it in the New Haven Register,” he said going through the trouble of calling the paper by its full name yet not explaining which Eliza he meant. “You remember Eliza?” He added, “My sister.”
“Yeah, sure yeah, the little one. How is she?”
“She’s fine. She’s in Old Saybrooke. Painting. She had a show up in Hartford and,” he stopped himself. This wasn’t the time. “She saw the” he stopped himself, reluctant to use the word obituary “thing in the paper about Iggy,” he continued safely proud of his mastery of acceptable colloquialisms. So I just thought…..”
“No, yeah sure, that’s fine.” She interrupted in an effort to rescue him from his obvious uneasiness. “You’re always welcome here, you know that. You’re like family, Tommy you always were. Iggy would have been so proud that you was here, honest to God.”
He noticed she bobbed her head with every word and he felt a sense of dread when she knelt with a wince of advancing years and came to eye level with him.
“He really loved you Tommy,” she whispered with what sounded to him to be an accusing icy shriek. He decided not to answer and for a second an eternity of silence fell over them. She stared at him with a searching look and realized she had hurt him and piqued his guilt, that great equalizer of the Irish race, so she, being a woman who understood these things, gave him her Mona Lisa smile.
“It’s good to see you again Chandler,” and softness from a time long gone warmed then.
“You too, Maria Aceso,” he called out, using her maiden name. He smiled as the apparition of his stress slipped from him and melted into the ocean air. He lifted his eyes to the morose drenched little house and said, “He’s a handsome young man, your son. Well spoken.”
“Yeah, sure. He’s a good boy,” she whispered. “He reminds me of you sometimes.”
“Really?” The notion delighted him and it showed. “Why?”
“Yeah, you know, some of the things he says,” she said with a mother’s smile as she too turned to look at the modest Cape Cod. “They just fly out of left field, you know? He tells you whatever comes into his mind. He makes you laugh.”
Still looking toward the house, she continued, “He’s got your eyes. Did you notice?”
“No,” he lied again.
She returned her eyes to his and he could see the question coming before she spoke the words.
“Did you ever have any…...” she trailed off, feeling the question was an intrusion, something she had never felt with him in the past.
Their relationship, essentially a relationship of youth, had been that open.
"Naw, there was never enough time or not enough,” he shrugged because he didn’t want to discuss it and he really could not find the right way to explain himself. He could hear the emotionless chill of the wind charging in from the fog drenched Sound before it covered them.
“Time,” he finally said settling for the wrong word. “….something, I don’t know why. Who knows why?”
He smiled at her but she did not smile back. She stared at him. He struck her as flippant and self-possessed, reserved in a way that was not like them, her people, and the Valley people. She decided that whatever she was looking for was gone or maybe it was never really there, that she had only seen those fine things in him through the eyes of a young woman long since gone.
Disregarding the uneasy silence, she decided to stare at him again for a few seconds longer to make sure she was right about what she saw and what she no longer saw and what she didn’t see, and deciding she was right, she declared, "you’ve changed,” allowing her disappointment to seep through in the disapproval of her voice.
The wind changed directions, as New England shoreline winds are prone to do, and quickly passed over them with a lukewarm interest. He looked at her. Had she always been this nasal? Why did she start every third word with the letter D? Did she always speak like that? Did he sound like that? Why were all these houses so small and shabby? Were they always that way? He wanted to leave.
“Did you ever tell him?” he asked, hoping she had and hoping she had not.
“About us?” she asked. He nodded, aware that his anticipation and anger showed.
“Naw,” she said and folded her thin, olive colored arms against a sudden sea breeze.
“You know, what would be the point there Tommy? You know? It would have caused more problems than it would have solved, and Iggy was a good father to him, so, like...I don’t know, you know?” The thought of it all overwhelmed her.
“We were young Tommy.” She was being generous. It annoyed him, and it showed. She wanted to return to the unquestioning safety and acceptance of her home. Young Ignatius Gallaher, a cop like his father, appeared in the doorway and waved to her. Saved, she smiled and waved back. So finally, it was over. It had ended. Together, they had reached a separate peace. That incident in their young lives had forever fragmented time and he learned that it is difficult to make sense of the world when time is broken. For those years, the answer eluded him. He did not understand it because it was bigger than he was, so he returned to the incident, time and time again, because in returning to it, he returned to the Valley to search for the answer.
“Well,” he said but couldn’t think of another word to say so he said nothing. Another blanket of uncomfortable silence draped over them just as a frigid Canadian wind blew down the Valley and stung them both. She wrapped her arms across her petite body, and he, not used to the chill leaned back to the warmth and safety of his imported leather seats.
“Do you need anything?” he asked, putting the key in the ignition, “anything at all?”
Suddenly, she seemed distant. Angry. She stood slowly with a slight groan and sighed, “No. No, Iggy had his pension from the department. I’m still working. There's no insurance because of what he did to himself but we’re okay.” She smiled dismissively. “Take care, Tommy.”
“Like I say, you ever need anything…Maria…..I…..”
She closed his car door in his mid sentence and slowly walked away. "I know,” she said over her shoulder, “I can count on you.”
The words stung him one by one. She waved a spiritless wave, and walked slowly back to the house. He pulled off his tie, tossed it on the floor, and drove away, back downtown, towards Route 8.