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John William Tuohy lives in Washington DC

Short story: A Matter of Time


First Tooth Paste Painting, Derek Bosher

   Turning his swivel chair completely to the left, he moved his hands from the counter and said to her, “Hello!  My name is Gabriel.   I prefer to be called Gabe.  I’m eighty-six years young.  I was born in Brooklyn, New York, but I’ve lived here my entire life except for a brief, and may I add, a mutually unhappy interlude in the Army.  I sold sump pumps my entire life.  I don’t see well but I still drive, it makes even the shortest ride interesting for me and everyone else on the road at the same time.  I’m in here a lot, because in my house, dinner is ready when the smoke alarm goes off and besides, eating here comes close to not eating alone.  I sit in this same spot every time I’m here and I have seen you in here before and considering how much we have in common, I thought we should talk.”
   She had tilted her head in amusement and the slightest of smiles grew across her face.  
   “And what do we have in common?” she asked.
   “Well,” he said slowly, “for starters, we’re both older than dirt.”
   She rolled her head back in a silent laugh. “True,” she said, “true.”
   Although she had never seen this man before, there was something that allowed him to say things like that and not offend.  He had a kind of child-like happiness about him.
    She could hear a young woman and an older man sitting a few feet away in a booth, engrossed in a conversation about literature. 
    His eyes narrowed and he tilted an ear towards the main dining room.
    “Listen,” he whispered. “Perry Como. Boy, I’ll tell you, I just loved Perry Como.  You know this song?”
       He softly sang out a verse.  
“Till the end of time, long as stars are in the blue,
Long as there's a Spring of birds to sing I'll go on loving you.”
     She joined him on the second verse.
“Till the end of time, long as roses bloom in May,
My love for you will grow deeper with every passing day.”
     When the song ended, she extended her fragile hand and said, “I’m Gretta. What was your name again?”
   He paused for dramatic effect and said, “What’s my name?  Wait , I know this one.  Gabe. Gabe Juventas.”
   “Gabe,” she said graciously, “I’m Gretta.  Gretta Geras. ”
   “Gretta,” he said with a smile and a nod, “that’s a pretty name.  Gretta.  That’s a good name.  I guess you’re not supposed to say womanly things are pretty anymore.”
   “Tell me I’m pretty Gabe,” she said, “all day long if you like.  It’s nice to meet you.”
   He stretched out his hand to her but she was three seats away, so he stood from his chair and sat next to her.
   “Eighty-six year old bones are not for stretching,” he said. “May I sit here?”
   “Please do,” she said with a wave that was near majestic. 
   He sat with a long sigh and said, “If I acted my age, I’d be dead.”  And then turning full around to face her he asked happily, “So, what shall we talk about?”
   “Well,” she said slowly, “it is a momentous day for me,” and she nodded as she sipped her tea.
   “It’s your birthday?” he asked.
   “No,” she replied with a smile.  “I have decided to sell my home of fifty years.”
   “Fifty years,” he said. “Wow, you are old, aren’t you?”
    She chuckled and added, “The home where my child was raised, the home where so much else in my life has happened.”
   She paused and gave him a side-glance.  He thought her eyes were beautiful.  They showed her soul and her kindness.  He considered saying something, anything, but thought it better to say nothing because he sensed that she wanted to be heard. 
    “It’s such a big house,” she continued as she guided her gaze back to her teacup.    
   “Especially when you’re all alone.  I know I should have left years ago, but I couldn’t.  So much of me is there.”
   Her attention returned to him and the dinner and she seemed surprised.  For lack of anything else to do, she perused a menu.
   “I guess I should have a salad,” she said more for her benefit then his.  “It’s healthier.”
   “Healthy Smelty,” he said with a wave of his hand. “Enjoy life.  My Ida would say….”
   “Is Ida your wife?” she asked interrupting him.
    “She was. She is.  Forty-five years married,” he replied. “She’s passed on now.  It’s been seven years.”
   “I’m sorry Gabe,” she said.
   “Thank you,” he replied.
   “Remarried?”  she asked.
   “Nope,” he said loudly. “Not that I’m opposed to it.  It’s tough to meet people when you’re my age, you know?  I mean, don’t get me wrong, these young gals are all over me, I beat em off with a stick.   Now, my back goes out more than I do.”
   “Children?” she asked.
   “No, but thank you,” he said. “I’m too old.”
   “Do you have children?” she asked and then realized he was joking.
   “No,” he answered with a vague sadness. “Never did.  It was just the two of us.  And you?”
   “A daughter,” she answered.
   “Is she local,” he asked.
   “Waterbury,” she said.
 “It must be nice,” he said, “you know, to have someone.”
   “We don’t speak,” she said suddenly arching her back straight up in the chair.  The words surprised her.  They seemed to flow out of her on their own. 
   “I’m sorry,” he said. “I really am.”
   “I’m sorry to burden you…..” she said, embarrassed that she had brought up the subject.
Sensing she needed to unload that burden, he said, “Let’s talk about it.”
“Well, I don’t know,” she said cautiously.
   “Don’t know what?” he shrugged. “Look, you need to get this off your chest, pardon my…what do you say…choice of words….and frankly, I’m bored.  I’ll listen to anything, so go ahead.  I insist.”
   She took a deep breath and released it and said, “I’ve reached out to her of course.” She continued, “I’m her mother and I didn’t have to reach out to her, but I did.”
   “She didn’t respond?” he asked sympathetically.
   “She said she needed time,” she answered quickly and he could see the jaw grow tense.     
   “I gave her forty five years of my time.  How much more time does she need?  Because for me, time is becoming a precious commodity.  If her father was here, oh boy, would he straighten her out in a quick hurry, I’ll tell you that.  I’d like her to feel what I feel.  Then she would know….oh boy then she would know…..”
   She stopped talking and realized she had gripped her tea mug so hard the blood had left her long thin fingers.  From the side, she realized he was staring at her and without turning to him she said, “I’m sorry.  You’re in an awkward position.”
   “Mothers and daughters,” he said with a shrug. “It’s a complex relationship.”
They fell silent for a few seconds, but it was a good silence, a comfortable silence.
   “You know,” he said slowly, “anger is an emotion.  Not the best one, but it’s an emotion.  On its flip side is calm and peace…..let her be angry.  Sometimes all that people need is a little room to vent.  Time heals all things.”
She sighed heavily, “Maybe it was me…I don’t know.  I’ve blundered so many things in my life.”  
   “You know,” Gabe said, “if I had my life to live over again, I would have more actual troubles and fewer imaginary ones.  I believe the biggest mistake you can make in this life is always fearing you will make a mistake.  To do that is a …uh….well it’s a mistake…. if you want to test your memory, try to recall what you were worrying about one year ago today.  I stopped worrying years ago.  When I go to bed at night, I leave my troubles with God.  He’s gonna be up all night anyway.”
   “You’re right.  Maybe I should go to Mass,” she said.  “Talk to God about it.  Are you a religious man, Gaberiel?”
   “Call me Gabe,” he said.  “I guess I’m religious, but I don’t attend.  Going to service doesn't make you spiritual any more than going to a garage makes you a car.”
   “I’m thinking about taking up golf, “she said. “Do you exercise?”
   “No,” he said flatly. “I figure that if  God wanted me to touch my toes, he would have put them on my knees.  Do you work in the area?”
   “Oh heavens no,” she said looking around the room.  “I don’t work anymore.  The last job I had was as a temp.  The man asked me if I knew how to copy a computer disk and I said, “of course I know how to copy a computer disk.  Where is the Xerox machine?  That’s when they let me go.  So I don’t work anymore.”
   “Coffee?” the waitress asked.
   “No dear, it makes me gassy,” Gretta said with squinted eyes.
    The waitress turned to Gabe and lifted the coffee pot.
    “Me?  Naw,” he said with a wave. “After two cups, I have to move the bed into the bathroom.” 
   Filled with a lifetime of more information than she wanted to know about Gretta and Gabe, the waitress returned to her station.
   “If you want to get rid of young people fast,” Gabe said looking over at the departing waitress, “talk about bodily functions.  They flee in seconds.”
   They smiled at each other.
  “You are easy to talk to,” Gretta told him.
   “Thank you Gretta,” he said with a slight bow.  “It’s hard to meet new people.  I was married to the girl I dated in high school.  Fifty-two years we were together.  I’m proud of that.”
   “Do you miss her?”  Gretta asked. “Often?  Do you miss her often?”
    He tilted his head to the side and pondered the question.  “I don’t know if this answers the question,” he said slowly, “but I miss the moments.  What I mean is being alone, I’ve had time to think, and what I think is that the important moments in life aren’t one thing.  They are a lot of moments rolled together.  You need perspective.  You need to become old to understand that, to truly understand it.  I often fear that my moments…the good moments are over.”
   He turned and looked at their reflections in the mirror and saw Gretta and him as they were fifty years before.  He spoke to the young man in the mirror and he said, “I used to think, when I was younger, that one day I would wake up and I would be in old age.  But there is no old age, or middle age or even youth, there’s just………….you.”
Fearing that he had gone on too long, he turned to Gretta and smiled and said, “Still, I’m proud that in dog years, I should be dead.  But you do grow old.” 
   “I know what you mean,” she said. “My idea of a big night out is sitting on the patio.”
   “I’m so old,” he said, “the candles on my birthday cake cost more than the cake.”
     He put his elbow on the counter and resting his head in his hand he said, “So, Gretta, I have bared my soul to you, now it’s your turn…talk to me.”
   “Well,” she said slowly, “I understand what you mean about the moments, the good moments.  It’s my fear as well, that they’re all gone.  I think often that if I had a person in my life, you know, a special person….  Now this may sound horrible to you and you’ll think I’m just a gosh awful person, but I’m not looking for a great romance.  I had that, with my husband, one of the finest men who ever lived.  I would just like some companionship.  And I know that’s just awful, but…..just not…. to be alone at a restaurant.  Someone to watch TV with.  I had the true love of my life.  Now I need to have another sort of true love.  A person who understands me as I am now.  When I was very young, I believed that true love meant holding hands, now I think it consists of holding hearts.”
   He was smiling at her and said softly, “Well said.”
    She looked into the mirror and saw her husband lying in the hospital and she said,
   “I had a good man.  He was such a good man.  A tough, gentle man.  The last time I saw my Bill, he was dying of cancer.  Those goddamned cigarettes.  Those goddamned cigarettes.  He had tubes running… into every part of his little body and he was so gaunt and colorless.  I kissed him on his forehead and then a while later he died.  He just died.  Well, for the longest time, that was all I had to remember him by, my husband, my love, that dear, strong, gentle man, in that hospital bed with all those tubes.”
   Gabe fought to hold back his tears but he couldn’t and said, “You asked me if I missed her often. It is an odd thing that when you see people in your life looking ridiculous or in pain that you realize how much you love them.  Now, with some distance behind me, I don’t think that’s important any more.  That day and the horrible picture it left me of my bride.  It’s not important.  I don’t think the way we say goodbye is important.  The time we spend together on this earth, and how we spent that time, sharing the difficulties and the joys of this life, that’s important.”
   They sat in silence for a minute and Gretta said, “You were saying about age, that you’re as old as you feel.  I really haven’t changed, I mean fundamentally changed, in seventy years.  Your body changes, but you don't change.  You’re still you.  We’re always the same age, inside.  I think….I think we grow old by deserting our ideals.”
   “I agree,”  Gabe said firmly, “and that’s why I will always be an anarchist.”
   She raised her teacup and saluted him. “Power to the people!” she said.
   He raised his coffee cup and said, “Ah, screw the people, think of yourself.”
   “Gabe,” she asked, “do you like Scrabble, the parlor game?”
   “Do I like Scrabble?” he said loudly. “My middle name is Scrabble.”
   And so they talked and the rain fell and the great, important moments of life went on.