A short story by John William Tuohy
The Diner was open but it was empty except for a cook and a waitress. It was 6:30 in the morning but the big clock on the wall, with its faded white face and black trim insisted that it was 12:00. It didn’t insist on AM or PM.
It had taken her forty-five minutes to walk to the Diner, through the darkness and then through the dawn and now she stood on the wet tile lobby floor and brushed the rain off her poorly fitted security guard’s uniform. It fit too tight in places on her but she was used to that. The abundant weight that she had carried all of her 22 years, made sure that not everything she wore fit.
She took a deep breath to fight off the fatigue brought on by the fourth day of a cold that had attached itself to her. The bus to New Haven wouldn’t be there for another fifteen minutes. She searched her pockets for change and finding it, she dropped the money into the pay phone’s coin slot, dialed the number and waited for an answer. She leaned her head in deeply between the two metal walls of the public pay phone and spoke in a hushed, frantic tone.
“Mama? I had to leave the babies at the house alone.” She waited and listened to the lesson she already knew was coming, and then broke in mid-sentence, “Mama I know he six. I’m his mother...” and then she realized her voice was rising. She did what the doctor at the clinic had told her to do. She took a deep breath and paused, and took in the wonderful aroma of freshly brewed coffee from inside the Diner that wafted across the air. She wanted a cup of coffee but she couldn’t afford one. She was calm again. Her heart wasn’t good and she was supposed to stay calm.
“What else I gonna do?” she asked and then listened to the reply and hearing it she said sorrowfully, with a pain that was far beyond her young years, “I’m so tired, Mama. I got to sleep. I can’t. My mind lay down for the night and it don’t turn off. What’s gonna happen next? I got to move. Cops busted into the apartment next door last night, what time was that, three o’clock in the morning, I think. Punks deal’n their dope. Seen that cockroach walk across the table this morning. I hope to God my baby didn’t see it, but he smart, he sees everything. Mama can you get over there this morning?”
She waited for the answer and when she heard it, she closed her eyes and whispered a silent prayer of thanks and said, “Thank you Mama....I know the bus cost money. I get it back to you.”
She hung up and searched around her pocket for another quarter and finding one, she placed a second call. When he answered, she thanked Jesus for not letting the phone company turn off the service. She said into the receiver, “Tyrone...where you at? At the corner? The babies wif you? I told you don’t leave them babies alone like that!” she yelled and then, looking around the vacant lobby and into the Diner she whispered, “I know the water cold, but you got to be clean. Just jump in an jump out.”
She waited for the protest she knew was coming and said, “I know it cold, take the babies and go in the kitchen, bring the TV wif you. Turn the burners on the stove all the way over till they don’t go no more, it get warmer in there quicker. I call ya later. Don’t call here less somebody hurt. No you can’t go to school today. Mama got to work today. You go tomorrow. Grandma on her way over. Don’t answer the door to no one, understand?”
He said he understood and she told him, “You a good boy. Mama love you so much.” She hung up the phone and sat on the blue plastic bench that stood under the empty coat hooks. She could smell the bacon frying inside the Diner and her stomach growled. It had been a long time since she had eaten bacon, a long time.
“Next month the water be warm,’” she mumbled aloud. “I’m sixty dollars short for having the gas bill paid and they turn it back on. I beg that utility man not to turn off that gas. I begged him. Paycheck come, I pay something to it but I gotta do some food shopping.” She reached into a massive plastic covered pocket book and took out a fist full of change. “I got a dollar sixty-five for the bus. If I wait up until after seven I can save sixty-five cents. I know I got 45 cents on the bureau at home, that’s a dollar and ten cent. A box of instant macaroni is a dollar twenty-five…” She counted, “twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen,” and said, “thank you Jesus!”
She closed her soft brown eyes and buried her chubby face into her large hands and said, “Jesus, why it so expensive to be poor? If I didn’t have to shop at the convenience store, what little money I got, go a lot further than it do. But I can’t walk all them blocks to that supermarket. I’m so tired but wait until after seven to get the reduce fare. It so cold, what am I gonna do for two and half-hours. Father, they say money won’t bring happiness. Give me a chance to prove that ain’t right.......I got faith in you my Lord, that you gonna come and help me. I know you will cause I asked for you in Jesus name to help me. No doubt in my mind you will help me. You got to have faith or you got to have doubt. There ain’t room in the human mind for both so...”
She paused and wondered if she had left anything out and remembered and said, “One more thing....please Jesus, don’t let that toothache come back again today. I can’t wait in the emergency room for eight hours over a toothache. I axe for dis in Jesus name, Amen."
She lifted her head and was surprised to see her reflection in the glass of the entrance door looking back at her. She studied herself and concluded in a soft whisper intended for Jesus. “I could be pretty. I ain’t ugly. Look that nose. He broke my nose and that’s how it got fixed, just growd that way. They say down at the clinic they can’t pay for it because it would be cosmetic. Welfare don’t pay cosmetic.” She smiled and added, “make sure the poor stay ugly.”
The smile fell from her pretty face and she said, “Don’t matter none. Gonna die before I'm 30 anyway.”
She looked at her nose and touched it gently with the tips of her fingers. “Broke my nose. I throw’d that man out. I told him I said, “You can slap my face and knock me around and kick me down and stomp me, but you cannot, I swear God himself, you cannot beat the self- respect out of me!”
She felt herself growing angry so she did what the therapist at the clinic told her to do, take a deep breath. Erase the bad thoughts from your mind. “Why I always got to rely on people who don’t give a damn about me?” she said aloud. “All my life it’s been like that.”
She pulled a crumbled, week old copy of the want ads from her pocket and studied it. “Career opportunity,” she thought with a smile, “yeah I been there. That means they expect you to want to ask, “Y’all want fries with that until you 65.”
She stepped aside from the door and stepped aside to allow a heavy set white girl in a red dress to leave and then she continued to talk to herself. “I can’t work in those burger places no more. Wear you down. Some boy almost half my age yell’n and scream’n at me to move faster. They french fries fool, not vital medicine! Everything I give up to get me that GED and it don’t make a danged difference. When you poor you believe in anything, even the GED. I can get into the community college, but only thing I can study is an associate in arts and that’s gonna take me four or five years…..for a two year degree. When you poor you just run in place all the time, it’s so hard to stop being poor, and it’s sad how few options you really got.”
It was 7:00 AM. A man who looked like he had been jogging walked in, gave her a smile, entered the Diner and took a seat at the counter. Out in the parking lot a well-dressed man in his early forties sat in a Mercedes.
The bus was on time. The driver was a nice man, an older man who always waited for her to walk out from the lobby. Walking slowly across the wet parking lot she thought again about that job at the storage company where her brother worked. He said last week, that they had an opening. A good job too, good pay, full benefits, everything. And the people up there, they liked her brother. He told her that they said that if she came around, they would interview her. She had a day off on Friday. She’d go out there then.
She paused, stood still for a second and said, “Jesus, I am noth’n but your humble servant and I know your ass is tired of me begging you for every little thing. But I just don’t know if I can go on. Jesus, if you love me, you get me that job. And I won't never axe you for noth'n ever again. Amen.” And she got on the bus.