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John William Tuohy lives in Washington DC

Short story: Lunch Hour

Orange Car Crash, Warhol 1963 


   Shelly spoke loudly into the phone as she walked across the room, “Mommy will be home shortly.”
   Reaching a patch of empty hallway near the bathroom doors, she hushed her tone and hissed into the phone, “You’ll get paid when I have the money.  I don’t know when that will be.  Then sue me, go ahead.  Fine.”
    She slammed the phone shut and sighed deeply, her eyes focused on the dingy gray wall in front of her.  They were going to turn the phone off any minute now.  She was not sure how much more of this she could take, but she knew that for the sake of her daughter that she would take as much as the world dished out because she was one hell of a good woman.
   The song 25 or 6 to 4 blared out too loudly from the table juke boxes and she cursed herself for not lowering their volume when she came on duty.
   “Bill collectors?”  a deep voice behind her said. “They try to shake you up.  Don’t worry about it.”
   Embarrassed, she did her best to muster a weak smile and nodded.  She looked into the main dining hall.  If he heard her, did they hear her?  She would die if they did.
   “So I see you’re not wearing a ring over here,” the man said, each word taxed by a strong, guttural accent heard only in the Valley.
   Her heart sank.  She was in no mood for this.  “But I see you are,” she snapped.
   Surprised, he looked down at the gold band on his finger and said, “I guess I should take that off huh?”
    She stared at him for a long time.  She sensed he was not being sarcastic or coy and there was a look of sincere questioning in his eyes, but no one, she reckoned, could be that stupid.
   “If I were a cheating piece of scum,” she said brushing past him, “I would.”
He recoiled, stung by her words that lit into him one by one like burning arrows.
   “It’s not like that,” he said, almost shouting, but he did not shout because it was not his way.  “I’m separated and not divorced yet.  You just…it’s just tak’n it off you know it’s um.”  He threw up his arms and looked to the left, “I guess I jumped the gun on that one.  I’m sorry.  I’m new at picking women up.”
   She could tell they were honest words spoken by an honest man.
   “Well, you laid that on with a trowel.”  She smiled but the words came out sounding harsher then she intended and because he was looking at the floor when she spoke, he missed the adjoining smile.
   “I didn’t mean picking up women in that sense, what I meant was,” he threw his hands in the air, totally and completely defeated. “I work with my hands.” He showed her his palms. “Words and me … forget it…I’m sorry.”
   She felt sorry for him.  He was a human being in deeply over his head and he had resigned to drown.  He seemed like a nice guy and he was handsome, but…….  “Look,” she said softly, “I’m real flattered and all, but I don’t date guys who are separated.  I’m sorry but there’s just too much baggage with that.  I’m really sorry.”
   Sal stood to his full, considerable height, and mustering what little dignity he felt he had left he said bravely, “No, hey no problem. No big deal.  I understand completely.  In fact, that’s a smart move.”
   Embarrassed, he stared across the aisle at a homely, heavy set young lady in a red dress who seemed to be hiding herself in a booth far in the back.
    “Look,” she started, “I…..” she said racked with guilt for the treatment she had given him. “Look, I’m not being mean or anything, it’s just that……”
    “I understand,” he said with a smile she liked instantly. “Separated people, they got issues and suitcases like you said…”
    “Baggage.”
    “Yeah and luggage, you name it,” he said trying to cooperate.
     She stopped leaving.  It seemed like the decent thing to do.  He needed to talk and she felt compelled to listen.
    The song Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is? filled the Diner with its incessant drumming.
     “Man,” he said with a laugh, “somebody must really like Chicago, huh?”
      She nodded and gave him the slightest of smiles. 
   “I hate this singles thing,” he said more to himself than to her. “At my age, and after fifteen years of marriage, you just feel like you should get some sort of seniority rating, privileges of rank.  But you don’t.  You just have to start over again.  And I want to start over again, but I don’t want to.  You understand that?”
   She had to laugh.  She understood it exactly.  “Oh brother,” she said with a wave,     
   “believe me I do.”  She was glad she stopped leaving.
   He didn’t hear her.  He was talking to himself aloud. “The thing is,” he said never moving his gaze away from the picture, “I don’t know what happened.  Over the years, things steamrolled, and the next thing you know, the entire situation just went too far.”
   She barely waited for him to finish his sentence because she needed to say something about the last thing he said and about the thing he was saying now.
   “Yeah,” she said, “and you don’t know how to make it stop or get it back to where it was.  And you’re so dug into your points, your principles on making him try to understand that you don’t hear the other side anymore.  You want to go back to what things were and you can’t, and you know that even if you could it would never work and things would never be the same.  You just want it all to go away.  We went through so much together and most of it was his fault.  Still when it’s over, you’re shell-shocked and at the same time you feel like the whole world sees your failure.”
   They fell into a comfortable silence for a second, each staring into different directions.  After a couple of seconds, he spoke up, but without looking at her and said, “I regret everything.  For these past two years, that’s all I’ve done, regret, regret, and regret some more.  I think the problem with that is, that you can get so caught up in regretting the past you start to forfeit the future.  What I resent is that I’m an intelligent, capable person, but I’m in this place that I don’t understand.  I’m in over my head.  I’m confused.”
   “You mean about life?” she asked worriedly.
   “No,” he answered, “I mean divorce.  It doesn’t come with a roadmap.   Neither does life.  But you wish it did though, huh?”
   She smiled at him sympathetically and said, “Listen, about divorce and making sense out of it, I can tell you from my own life, you’ll never understand why you got divorced.  And if you spend too much time thinking about it, you become a slave to trying to understand what happened.  So when you give that up, you start thinking, “Will I ever love again?”
 He waved away her concerns. “Yeah, sure you will,” he said, “I hope you will.  I really do.  I do think that if you have enough in you to suffer from love you have enough in you to love again.  I know what you mean about thinking too much about what happened and the harm it caused.  What I regret so much is the harm I’ve done to my daughter.  I may get over this, but she may never get over this.  She’s with my wife, who is good. She’ll bring her up better than I ever could, but I gotta say, she poisoned her against me and that bothers me.  I think about that, like every five minutes.  I don’t mind that she declared war on me.  I do mind that she drafted my child into the battle.  They live across the country.  Things just kind of dissolved.  I never thought this would happen to me.  I always thought that divorce is what happens to someone else.  When there’s kids involved, there is really no such thing as a no fault divorce.  You know what the most hurtful thing that was ever said to me was?  My little girl says to me one day, What about your love? and I said, It’s over, Princess and she says, No, Daddy I mean me.  I felt like a knife got rammed into my stomach.  Divorce is like an amputation; you survive, but there's less of you.”  He stopped and whistled, “I think my ex is crazy.”
   “I know my ex is crazy,” she said and then added, “you’re easy to talk to.”
    “Yeah, you too,” he said. “It’s nice to get things off your shoulders huh?  You’re busy and here I am rambling on.”
   “No,” Shelly said, “it’s okay.”
   An easy silence fell over them and he said, “I live alone.  It’s very hard for me to be alone.”
   “I live with my daughter,” she said.  “It’s sort of like living alone.”
   “I don’t do alone well,” he added. “I’m a people person.  I come from a big Italian family.  People all over the place.  When I was a kid, I used to wish for just one minute in the bathroom without somebody banging on the door. “What happened?  What did you do?  Fall in?  Now…now it’s just….it’s just empty.”
   “I know, I know,” she said. “You die a little bit from it.  Those sound like strong words, but I believe that inside of my heart.  It kills a little part of you.  I try to take one day at a time, but sometimes several days attack me at once.”
   “I guess what I’m saying is this,” Sal said with some firmness. “To live without being loved or giving love, it’s not really living, it’s just like surviving, and frankly, I’m scared.  I’m man enough to say that too.  I don’t care what people think.”
   “There’s no shame in honesty,” Shelly said with a smile.  She liked this human being.  He was a lost soul but he was a good soul. “I’m scared too.  I mean, it scares you, when you think that you could end up dying alone.”
Sal said, “I’m getting to that age where if I dated someone half my age, I wouldn’t be breaking the law.  I don’t feel older, but I have noticed all my friends are starting to look middle aged.”
 She sighed and said, “What kind of world is this?  I mean who’s in charge?  Who do I talk to about this?  Who makes the rules anyway?”
He replied, “You know, if you’re in a crowded elevator and say I hate so and so and I wish he would die, everybody laughs, but if you say I’m sad and I hurt and I need a hug everybody moves to one corner of the elevator…trust me on this, I know.”  
She was nodding in agreement, “Yeah, you’re right,” she said. “I agree with you.  It’s all too easy.  I think the problem is that we believe in the divine right to personal happiness, the rule of self-love, to be enjoyed without effort, no matter what the cost to others.  But what makes us think it’s such an enlightened idea?  All it does is to give the okay to withdraw from any relationship the moment our happiness appears less than perfect.”
   He liked her.  She was nice.  For the first time in months, he felt his shoulders lower and loosen. “Still,” he said, “you wonder sometimes, why you try.  I mean we keep coming up empty handed and I’m not getting any younger.  But, I keep at it because I think that someplace in the world there’s someone for me, that I have a lot to offer.  I’m a good man, I think.  I don’t know.  I try to be.  I’m honest and I work hard and I try to do the right thing.  I don’t know, maybe I’m just looking for redemption.  I mean, that’s not the right reason to meet somebody, to prove you can do it right the next time.  So I dunno, maybe I’m just stupid.”
   “Naw,” she said quickly. “I don’t think you’re stupid.  I think you’re brave and daring.  I think anyone who keeps trying when they fail because they’re certain in what they believe in is a very brave and noble soul….unless it involves stalking or something weird like that.”
   “Thank you,” he said.  “That was a nice thing for you to say.”
   “You know what I miss?” she asked. “I miss watching movies with somebody else.  Watching movies alone, it’s just not the same thing, you know?  I miss movies.”
   “Well look,” Sal said, “you know, you like movies, and I like movies. Maybe if you’re interested….”
   “Yeah,” she said, “I would like that.  I would like that a lot.”