Thursday came, and at twelve noon I told Stephanie I had a lunch engagement and I wouldn’t be back until two o’clock. I then set out from the shop and headed for Hal’s.
I fully resolved to get this woman out of my life forever. I walked with a dark demeanor and did my best to harden my heart. All the way there I kept my hands in my jacket pockets, one hand fidgeting with the dog tags.
I arrived outside Hal’s by twelve-twenty. It was busy as usual and she was already inside. She managed to get a window seat, and as I stood on the sidewalk I saw her intently reading the menu behind the glass, her right side facing the street. She sat in her chair in an unusually straight and upright position, and looked as beautiful as ever. She wore a long ankle-length sleeveless dress with a scoop neckline. It came from the category of dresses I later learned is called a “shift.” Such a dress is (as she explained to me) a very simple stovepipe design worn without a belt, meant to vaguely skim the surface of a woman’s body and only hint at her curves. The pale yellow material had a dark but delicate Japanese floral print, and the cloth also had the most subtle hint of shininess to it, like it might have been made of silk.
When I saw her my hardened heart melted and I lost my nerve. How could I possibly sabotage this lunch date with her? I thought about the possibility that Doctor Tuxedo wouldn’t even know I had met with her today. Yes, he could perhaps get his weasely hands on a phone log. But aside from the outrageous measure of tracking the pings on Catherine’s and my cell phones he wouldn’t necessarily know I had met her for lunch. Could I risk it?
I took a few extra moments outside to pull out my wallet and focus on a photograph of my son. After meditating on his smile and recalling the sound of his laughter, I managed to regain my steely resolve. I put the wallet away then entered the diner with a robot-like posture, heading to her table on a mission of lunch date self-destruction.
I arrived at her tableside and she looked up from the menu at me in the same mild startlement as a week earlier. But this time the startlement gave way to a rapturous smile of adoration. That smile caught me off guard, and as the smile grew in warmth and intensity I again lost my dark stoniness. And then when she reached out her left hand to briefly touch mine, my heart jumped at her touch, and that was when I noticed she no longer wore her wedding ring. My resolve was gone and there was no getting it back.
In total surrender I slowly descended into the seat across from her, entranced by her smile, thinking about the phone conversation I had overheard between Catherine and Mrs. Valera. My own smile came forth and together we ordered lunch (with separate checks). And we talked. I didn’t sabotage a thing.
I asked about her injury. She was doing much better but was still sore. She also said she currently wore a rib brace under her dress. I commented that she looked perfectly normal and the rib brace was undiscernable. She thanked me.
She asked about my son: his age, his school, his hobbies. She also asked about my family and my travels. We shared amusing stories of incidents on airplanes and in taxis. She also shared with me the comedy of errors she and Captain Warren once experienced on board a cruise ship.
All through lunch we called each other “Mr. Walczak” and “Mrs. Warren.” Just once I wanted to hear that perfect voice of hers call me “Pete.” And just once I wanted to be able to call her “Catherine.” The nagging threat of losing Jason remained under the surface al through lunch. Can’t I have them both? came my pathetic plea to the universe.
“By the way,” she suddenly changed the subject, “I didn’t want to give your bonus to you here in the diner. So when we’re done with lunch maybe I can eventually give you a lift back to your shop and hand you your bonus there? That’s just my way of keeping business separate from … lunch.”
“Uh, sure. That’ll work.”
“And if you’ll permit me,” she continued, “I also brought a gift for you.” That news surprised me. “It’s in the trunk of the car. I can likewise give that to you back at the office.”
“I didn’t get anything for you,” I shook my head feeling very small.
“You saved my life. That was more than enough. I could give you a thousand gifts every week for the next fifty years and I’d still never be able to repay you.”
I couldn’t say anything to that. And I now secretly feared that this “gift” might exhibit an extravagance so enormous that it would shame me for eternity. But I also trusted that Catherine had enough class to avoid making me uncomfortable with a gift I simply couldn’t accept.
“Meanwhile,” she continued, “I still have a lot of explaining to do.”
“Some ’splainin’ Lucy?” I joked.
“Yes, Ricky” she joked back. “Some ‘splainin’.” Getting a laugh out of her didn’t invoke delusions of godhood, but it did manage to make me feel important. “Maybe we can take a walk in the park square around the corner before getting into the car, and then I can ‘splain things there.”
When our two separate checks came, I surprised not just Catherine but even myself when I snatched her check from the waitress and paid for both of us. Catherine smiled and thanked me yet again.
We both started to stand in order to leave. While I stood up with ease, I watched her rise slowly with a grimace on her face. I took in my breath in momentary panic over her expression of pain, then I stepped forward to help her stand. I held out my right elbow to her and she gladly took it with her left hand. I walked her to the ladies’ room, her arm hooked tightly under mine, her perfume gently wafting at me --the same perfume she’d been wearing the night of her injury. And I could feel the material of her dress: yes, it was silk.
After she entered the ladies’ room I took advantage of the men’s room. I finished before she did so I waited outside the restrooms several more minutes for her to emerge.
She rejoined me and we slowly walked outside together, taking a shortcut through Jeweler’s Row on our way to the park square. Catherine clutched my arm the entire way, leaning upon my strength. Her perfume accompanied our stroll and I wondered if anyone else on the streets could detect her gentle scent.
As I walked and supported her leaning body, I could not imagine letting this woman leave my life. The sheer delight of being seen by hundreds of people with her on my arm while making our way down Jeweler’s Row brought back my delusions of godhood. We slowly passed the many window shops full of diamonds, rubies, sapphires and pearls, and I wanted so much to buy her something. I glanced at her neck and saw it empty of any jewelry. I picked up on the dark yet delicate print etched on her golden dress --it was dark green-- and I thought: Emeralds. Maybe she would like emeralds. Of course I couldn’t actually afford emeralds, but that wasn’t the point.
We headed around the block and arrived at Washington Square Park . When we reached an empty bench I helped her slowly sit down. After I made sure she was comfortable I kept my right hand on her shoulder and sat down beside her at her left. I then got very brave and wrapped my right arm gently around her back --she didn’t bristle and actually let me do it. We sat there watching a group of children playing near a fountain.
She leaned only slightly against me, and I could tell she was trying to avoid bending sideways, so I slid closer to her to compensate and wedged myself right up against her side with no space between us at all, supporting her with my own frame. I sensed her previously-tense body relax against mine and she leaned her head just slightly toward me. I tipped my head sideways toward her and set my jaw against the side of her temple. Her perfume continued to hum in my nostrils.
“What a lively bunch of children,” she said quietly.
“Yes,” I nodded. “It’s always great to watch kids playing in a park.”
Then she suddenly said: “James and I couldn’t have children.” I was mildly stunned at that revelation. I tipped my jaw away from her and became very quiet to let her continue. “We tried. And then when nothing happened we saw a few specialists. And after a bunch of tests on me and then a bunch of tests on him, it turned out James had Gulf War Syndrome. So we were actually very grateful that we never had kids because of everything we’d heard about the children of Gulf War veterans. Not that we wouldn’t have had the love for such a child, just that we preferred not to inflict any child with such cruel birth defects.”
I honestly didn’t know what to say to that. I remained speechless and my only response was to place my free hand upon hers. She turned her fingers into mine and we laced them together. Each thumb began stroking the other.
“As for the cancer,” she continued, still gazing at the playing children, “we’re pretty sure that was attributable to his time in Iraq as well.”
“I’m so sorry,” I finally managed to say. “My ex-wife and I were very concerned when we first heard about Gulf War Syndrome and we had me checked and had our son checked too. And it seems that I was spared. In fact, I contacted some of the other guys in my unit years later about it and none of them reported any symptoms either. But I regret I never contacted Captain Warren. So I never knew. I’m so sorry.”
“You were lucky. You and your buddies all left the Middle East after the war was done. But James stayed behind and he later went into the contaminated areas before anyone even knew there was contamination.”
“Again, I’m very sorry.”
With my hand still laced with her hand, and my arm still on her shoulder, she continued to gaze at the children. But then she changed the subject.
“I hate to say it but I’ve really been enjoying my time with you,” she now hung her head in what looked like sadness. “And yet here I am, ruining everything by getting all serious.”
“You’re not ruining a thing,” I shook my head.
“I’d like to sit here with you and laugh about fun things, not get all dark and gloomy about serious matters.”
“If that’s the case, then let’s start laughing,” I smiled.
She shook her head: “I came here today to explain things. And what I have to say is pretty serious indeed. So in light of that, I have to stop holding your hand right now. And I also can’t have your kind arm around my shoulders anymore.”
She gently unhooked her fingers from mine. Then I voluntarily lifted my arm from her shoulders and moved several inches away from her. She stared at the ground now.
“In spite of this regrettable foray into the moribund, do you think I can maybe hold your hand again at some point in the future?” she asked of the ground.
“Yes,” I nodded. “Five seconds from now would be just perfect in fact.”
She laughed again. I felt important again.
I imagined any minute now she might let me call her “Catherine” for the first time. And I, of course, would let her call me “Pete.” Any minute now (if there was a God in Heaven).
But then she reclaimed her quiet demeanor. She continued to stare at the ground.
Finally she began her journey into “seriousness.”
“You asked me a question last week. You asked me: ‘What is it that needs to be survived?’ My answer for you today is: the end of life as we know it.” She made that otherwise alarmist declaration with a surprising calm. When she continued she maintained the same calm. “It’s coming quite soon. The end of life as we know it. And when I say ‘soon,’ I am saying it’ll be five years or less.”
And now she looked right at me. The somberness on her face chilled me. I paused to let her clarify, but she merely held her gaze upon me and waited for my response.
Here I now wondered if she might perhaps have been a devout adherent to some extreme religious sect of the repent-for-the-end-is-nigh variety. If so then the otherwise painful task of telling her I couldn’t see her again might not prove that painful after all.
“Are you at liberty to be more specific?” was all I could ask.
“What do you think would happen to this world if every nation on the planet suddenly ran a little bit short on oil? Now I’m not asking you about if we all ran completely out of oil -- I’m only asking you about what might happen if we didn’t have quite as much to go around as we used to have.”
I hesitated, recalling all four-hundred and forty tanks in her “basement.”
“I really don’t know,” I shook my head. “I imagine we’d have long lines at the local gas stations. Maybe gasoline rationing. Maybe people would start walking more.”
“Your answer only addresses auto transportation. But what about your food?” she asked. “Where would you get your food from?”
This whole thing puzzled me. I couldn’t continue down this conversational path any further without some clarification.
“Wait,” I raised one hand slightly. “Is THIS what you needed to talk to me about? Some academic question about a hypothetical oil shortage?”
She hesitated and regrouped. She now chose to preface her argument with an apologetic. “I told you last week that I would explain everything to you. The explanation is complicated. The contents of my ‘basement’ include a number of very sizeable oil tanks. And I am here trying to tell you why I even have those tanks. As I said, it’s complicated. So yes: academic questions will be part of that explanation. Do you have the patience to bear with me in these academic exercises?”
“Um ... the local farmer’s market?” I suggested.
“What?” she squinted.
“My food,” I explained. “I would get my food from the local farmer’s market about three blocks from where I live.”
She nodded, realizing I was now on board with the conversation. “Thank you for your answer. But I’m afraid your answer isn’t realistic. The local farmer’s market can’t feed the entire city of Philadelphia .”
“Doesn’t it feed us now?”
“No,” she shook her head. “Over eighty percent of all your food currently travels to your plate from a distance of no less than a thousand miles. California . Florida . The entire Midwest . The local farmer’s market barely services one percent of present day food consumption in Philadelphia . The rest needs to arrive on trucks -- trucks that need gas and diesel. Once the gas and the diesel start growing scarce, the truck deliveries will also start growing scarce. Have you ever seen an empty supermarket before, Mr. Walczak?”
I pondered her question and recalled only one time in my life when I witnessed an empty supermarket. I thought back to that time and recalled it with both anger and sorrow.
-------------------End of Chapter 28--------------------