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John William Tuohy lives in Washington DC

Short story: The Winter Years

 
Jim Dine, Five Feet of Colorful Tools, 1962

 He was reading the newspaper while he waited for his order to arrive.  He never read the newspaper before she was gone.  Now he read it because it was something to do.  He was reading an article in the newspaper about the young mother of four children who lived in town and had died of pneumonia.  She was 22 years old and had worked as a security guard down in New Haven and now her children would be sent to live with their grandmother who was also of that city and was reported to be thirty-eight-years old.    
   He put the paper down and thought that life is unfair.  He remembered that she closed the door tightly and locked it but she did not want to go.  She adored her home.  She paused to wonder what it would be like to wake up and have no breasts.  She pushed that thought out of her mind and remembered that the doctor said he wanted to talk to her.  There were other developments, he said.  She told him that she would see him after the operation.  It was just too much to deal with.  She knew, anyway.
   She looked out into the day and it was beautiful.  It smelled cold.  The sun was bursting brilliantly in the deep blue sky.  The New England snow slowed things, and in the early morning hours, when the snow was untouched and pristine, it blanketed the Valley with a pleasant sense of peace and calm.  Beautiful winter days like this were a part of the reason she loved this place and why she had never left.
   She held the thin black iron rail and stepped carefully down the slate and cement steps.  Watching her, he said across the freshly fallen snow, “Ice is gone.  I got it.”  And he had.  In fact, it was gone before the sun had risen over his Valley’s hills.  He took shoveling seriously.
   She went over the mental list of food she had left prepared for him.  There was Golabki, stuffed cabbage and Chlopski Posilek, bacon and cabbage, Rosoz kurczaka and golden chicken consomm√© with noodles.  There was Placki kartoflane, potato pancakes, and Klopsiki, meatloaf stuffed with eggs.  There was Kotlet schabowy and breaded pork cutlet.  She left Faworki, pastry twists, and Makowiec, sweet poppy cake for dessert.
    “I left you a few things inside the frig-er-rater,” she said and went over the working of the mysterious microwave with him, again, although they both knew its intricacies would elude him anyway and he would nuke the food so long that smoke would billow out of its every crevice.
   He let the engine idle and turned on the heater to warm the protective vinyl coverings on the seat.  A slight steam of blue grey smoke from the exhaust floated ghost like over the open trunk where he had carefully placed her white Naugahyde covered luggage over an old quilt in the unlikely event that there was dirt on the trunk floor.  She had packed only the clothes she knew she would need, her nightgowns, slippers, her best dress, shoes, and her good jewelry.
   He smelled the cold too and he liked it.  He liked the way it felt on his cheeks and on the tip of his nose.  He liked outside because you were alone outside.  Years ago, he had worked inside the shop for a few months but he didn’t like it.  He did not like the way some of the guys talked dirty talk about girls.  Some of them even had dirty magazines with naked pictures of girls jammed inside their lockers.  They would show him and he would say, “I go to mass, you know,” and they stopped doing that.  That was why he took the driver’s job, hauling loads from Ansonia up to Springfield and back again.
   Twenty-four years behind the wheel of a big rig had left him with enormous flat hands, thick wrists and a flabby rear end that was distinctly disproportionate to the rest of his wide muscular body.  Decades of handmade kielbasa, and potato cheese pierogis topped with bacon, and fried onions had left him with an enormous belly.  And those were the only things about him that were memorable or unique except that he was a kind man, a benign gentle man.  She always said that the crew cut on his still blonde but thinning hair made him look like a Polish prison guard and men who didn’t know him stepped out of his way.  But children liked him instantly and he had that aura of men who would rather listen than speak.
   He did not speak about this hospital situation.  He didn’t understand it and sitting there on the edge of his thoughts was how he would take care of himself after she was gone.  He worried about the laundry the most.  Those machines were a mystery to him.  When she was in the hospital that time with the baby, he had fought it out with the laundry machine and the laundry machine won by shrinking everything to half its size.  He wondered if she would feel pain.  There were a lot of times over these past few weeks that he closed his eyes and talked to the Virgin Mary.  He said to her that if there had to be pain involved, let him feel it instead of her, because he could take it and he was not sure she could.  She was a small woman he thought, and God must have made him this big for a reason.
   He did not want to think about any of that now.  In a half hour, he would be alone and then he would have no choice but to think about it, because there would be no one else to talk too.  He turned his attention to the slate wall and noted that roots had pushed their way into the tiny porous holes in the cement and pushed apart and severed the gravel that kept the wall together.
   She slowly made her way over to him and stared at the crumbling wall as well.
   “It’s gotta come down,” he said, “before it falls down on its own.  You don’t want that.”
   “I remember you and the boys built that.”  She pointed to the patch of wood in back of the house. “Took the rocks from the back.  Remember?  We took the Easter pictures here with yous in your red suit coats.”
   The memory brought a wonderful smile to his face.
   “Yous were so handsome,” she said with pride that lifted her chin.  “Oh honest to God though.”
   He pulled a large rock from the top of the wall and placed in on the lawn. “Well, it’s gotta come down now while we can still save it.”
   He turned to see her eyes had welled up.  “Hell, woman, it’s just a damn wall,” he said trying his best to sound gruff but coming nowhere close to the effect he wanted.  She locked her short soft arm into his and he turned and embraced his bride for a long moment because he loved her and because he missed her already and because hospitals upset him and he held her to keep out the world, if only for another moment.
    They walked silently to the car, arm in arm.  The snow was tapering off into rain, a rain that unlike the snow, seemed to come as an assault, an attack that would somehow, alter things forever.  He opened the door.  She slid in.  He shut her door, and he drove his bride to the hospital.
   He ate alone these days.  He arrived to the Diner at six every evening and sat at the same place at the counter and thought of her often while he waited to see her again.