Where There is No Grief
by Anna Stolley Persky
(It doesn’t matter how Audrey ends up in the 1970s watching her younger self eating the last meal she ever had with her father, does it? Perhaps she finds a time portal in the back of her closet, somewhere between the hanging shoe organizer and the formal blue dress, price tag still attached. The one she was supposed to wear to the 2020 St. Patrick’s Day gala. Or Audrey could, like my daughter suggests, bring back to her cluttered apartment a wrinkled gnome from Central Park. The gnome could press one bony hand to Audrey’s shoulder and whisk her backwards through the decades all the way to February 12, 1977. It could all just be a dream, but I don’t think so. It could be the magic of imagination – either hers or mine, you can choose – that allows her to travel through time and space to Charley’s Diner on Park Heights Avenue, only a few miles from where she used to live, back then, back in Baltimore, back when her father was her life.)
Audrey starts off disoriented, a little dizzy from the journey.
She notices the floor first – soft beige carpeting stretching across the span of the restaurant – and then, in orange and avocado, the chairs and cushioned booths.
Then the sounds: the clinking of dishes, the rush of conversation, steady, almost comforting, and then a shout – “Hey Cindy, they want another one over here.” Then someone close to her ear: “Whaddya want, hon?”
Hon. It is the only word she needs to hear. She knows where she is now. It is the signature word, the not-so-secret signal from one Baltimorian to another.
Audrey turns to the voice, to a pale woman with wide-set green eyes accentuated with blue shadow and auburn hair pinned back on each side with barrettes. Audrey notices the slight silver tinge to the woman’s hair and her name plate: “Jill.” She knows that name. Jill.
Audrey catches a whiff of lemon.
“Cat got your tongue?” The woman, Jill, wipes her hands on each side of her brown polyester waitress dress. “You want to sit down?”
Audrey doesn’t know what she wants. Or maybe she does. She wants to understand how she got to the restaurant, which she recognizes from her childhood.
Audrey knows when she is now, too.
She wants to know whether she is trapped here. She wants to remember whether this woman had once figured in her life, but, at first, all she comes up with is the smell, the achingly familiar sting of lemon. Then, a memory: Jill, holding Audrey, stroking her hair, telling her something about angel wings.
Sweating under her cashmere coat, Audrey wants to run, to hurl herself through the revolving door a few feet behind Jill’s head into the dark night. She wants to scream, to fight, to kick something hard, but she also wants, already tasting it, already salivating as if no time has passed, the fish and chips, or no, the custard-layered cakes. No, she wants the chocolate ice cream, the velvety texture she has never found again, no matter how many scoops she tries, no matter how far she travels.
Audrey wants something else, something she can’t yet name, and she wants to ask questions not of Jill, but of the universe (of God?). She wants an answer as to why she’s been stolen from Lexington Avenue, several states and more than four decades away, to here, back to this restaurant on a street that had once been crucial to her life, where her mother once worked only a few blocks over in a bridal shop. Where her father.....
She knows he must be here. Her younger self is here, too. She feels their presence at first, without seeing them.
Audrey wants to know if she’s here to repeat it all, to relive it until she gets something right.
(“I am thinking about regret,” I tell my daughter after the minyan service, as I unpin the black ribbon from my dark wool dress and place it on top of my nightstand. “You should think about making me a snack,” she replies, then walks out of my room to change into pajamas. I go to the kitchen, take out the milk and cereal. We eat together in the living room, on the sofa, slurping, her feet against the curve of my hip.)
Audrey wants to say goodbye or curse her father or kiss him once last time.
"Yes,” Audrey says, surprising herself, straightening her shoulders as her mother would have nagged her to do. “I do know what I want. I’d like some chocolate ice cream.”
“Sure, hon, who wouldn’t?” Jill says, and then bypasses the hostess to guide Audrey to a seat. Jill hands Audrey a large plastic menu, yellow, with drawings of hamburgers, crabcakes, and a description of the “INFAMOUS Sally Salad: a garden-fresh medley of lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and hard-boiled eggs, topped with anchovies and pepperoni slices.” In all her years coming to Charley’s Diner with her father, Audrey never ordered the Sally salad. Her father and mother used to debate Sally, somehow connected to the restaurant, gambling, crime, something dark and bloody, this woman who had invented the salad. Was it that Sally had been arrested and thrown into prison for something that her mother thought was terrible and her father shrugged off as not a big deal? It had been mentioned in fights between her parents, hushed tones and hissed whispers in both public and at home, in their brick rowhouse, in the weeks before her father disappeared.
“Just the ice cream?” Jill says. “Because that’s fine.”
“No.” Audrey’s voice is getting stronger, more definitive. If she is going to be thrown back in time, she damn well is going to do things differently. She hands the menu back to Jill. “Not just the ice cream. Also, the Sally salad.”
“I’m going to try the Sally salad.” Audrey’s voice is getting louder, but still polite.
Always polite. Do not show your anger. Do not show fear or resentment. Her mother had, after all, raised her to have manners even in a crisis. And what bigger crisis has she faced – ignoring for the moment, the several she endured as a child, the two failed marriages, the collapsing career – than being thrust back in time just as she was digging into the brandy, wondering if the pandemic had ruined her life or if it had already been on a downhill plunge? “Yes, I’m going to try it.”
“So you are,” Jill acknowledges, enunciating each word carefully, slowly, as if there is something a little off with Audrey and she needs placating. “It’ll be right out.”
“And don’t forget the ice cream. Thank you.”
But, before heading to the counter to repeat Audrey’s order there, Jill turns to another table, just a few steps from Audrey. Jill pats the thin shoulder of a girl with feathered brown hair. She exchanges a look with a lanky not-quite-showing-his-middle-age man, the one with the wavy, shoulder length chocolate milk hair and sideburns, sitting across from the girl. It is a look that has some hidden meaning between the two of them. Audrey can tell that much. She wants to jump up, reach out and grab Jill, throw her down for looking so intimately at the man, who is Audrey’s father, after all.
But she does nothing to Jill, who for all she knows, has covert connections with all her long-time customers or, perhaps, knows something about her father that Audrey doesn’t know. Grownups are obscure, this much she has learned from her own life, from the secrets she has accumulated through the years. No, she isn’t going to think about her mistakes. She is going to think about her current situation, her father, her young self, just feet away from her.
Audrey takes a deep breath, folds her hands on her lap, and waits. She has waited decades to see her father again, although she always assumed it would be under different circumstances. She can be patient a few more minutes.
Jill finally moves past both their tables to place Audrey’s order.
Her father must be asking her younger self questions like he used to: “How was school?” Teasing: “Don’t you want to try just a bite of my salad?” Concerned: “Is that Bob kid leaving you alone?” And then, her nickname, which she has never forgotten, but hasn’t heard since her father left: “Can I have just one of your fries, Drey-Drey?”
But no matter how hard she tries; Audrey can’t hear them. She sneaks glances at their profiles -- her young self, so tender-skinned, pale, using her utensils to cut with precision the fried fish and French fries into bite-sized pieces, wiping her mouth with a napkin, her mother’s daughter.
Her younger self stops chewing and swallows. She grins at her father. Audrey sees in her the immersion, the glow of knowing her father is listening, the pureness before the after, before grief distorts her memories of him, before she finds out that he isn’t the hero or even the good father. Because, later, between the news accounts and her mother, he will become the villain of her life story.
Her father laughs at something her younger self says. He leans over the table, pressing one thick hand on her chin. Her father doesn’t see Audrey staring at them. He seems, for the moment, oblivious to Audrey, Jill, and everyone else in the restaurant. Audrey realizes that it is because of this tight focus on his daughter that her father won’t see the police cars until it’s too late. He won’t have time, again, to say goodbye. He won’t have time to reconsider his decision to run.
Unless Audrey warns him.
(“You do know that she can’t talk to her father or herself in the past or she will create a time paradox,” my daughter says with the wisdom of a fifteen year old. “And if she talks to them, when she tries to get back to the future, the future could be totally different because of her, or she could even make it so she doesn’t even exist. Just with one word. You know that, right?” “Yes,” I answer. “I am aware of the constraints of time travel of which you speak.” She isn’t satisfied. “I don’t think you are.”)
Which Audrey considers.
She had forgotten the way he looked that night: the brown-and-white striped wide lapel shirt opened at his chest to reveal the Star of David glistening on a chain around his neck, a gift from her mother on his 35th birthday.
What would her life have been like if he had stayed?
He would have been arrested. Maybe the case against him would have been dismissed, maybe he would have gone to trial. They could have been there for him, her mother, her, in the courtroom testifying, if necessary.
Her mother might not have cried in the bathroom, flushing the toilet over and over until she’d gone from sad to fuming. He could have been released on good behavior. He could have been found not guilty. Prosecutors could have whisked them all into witness protection.
But most likely, he would have ended up in prison, where she could have visited him, trapped, miserable.
Had he stayed, she might not have lived the life she did, trying to fill up the emptiness he left behind, financially successful, emotionally hollow, estranged from her mother for years before her death, bereft of children, even.
“An empty pot,” her first husband had called her. “No soil. No nutrients. Nothing survives inside you.”
Audrey would have at the very least, likely known where he was, whether he was dead or alive, not always wondering, sometimes thinking he was nearby, the man in the car down the street, at the supermarket, sometimes deciding he’d been shot long ago, left in a dumpster somewhere.
Audrey has the advantage of knowing, this time, that when he says he’s going to take a piss, he isn’t planning on coming back. She has adult words that could, maybe, stop him.
(“Don’t you know?” my daughter says. “There is no parallel universe where there is no grief. Every choice we make has both terrible and wonderful consequences.” I tell her to do her homework. “A bad grade is also a consequence,” I say.)
Audrey stands up. She turns towards her father and her younger self, now playing hangman on a napkin. They used to play hangman endlessly. And tic-tac-toe. Her father also taught her blackjack and poker, but not at the restaurant, down in their basement, away from her disapproving mother. Even now, she gambles at casinos, but hides it from her few remaining friends. Audrey takes a step towards her father who still doesn’t see her, although her younger self looks at her. For a moment, they lock eyes, but then her younger self looks back at the napkin.
The darkness is heavy outside, the windows frosted, the indoor lighting fluorescent. Her father puts the pen down and blows out an exaggerated sigh. Audrey is close enough to hear them now.
“Is there a D?” her younger self says.
He writes down a D.
“Is the word danger?”
“You’re so good at this, Drey-Drey.” Her father crumples up the napkin. “You always win.”
Audrey opens her mouth to speak. Just then, reflected in the window, red, blue lights flashing, police cars, their movement silent and slow, approach the parking lot. She feels a body brush against her, shove her to the side, and there’s Jill clearing her throat. Her father doesn’t appear to hear Jill, so she clears her throat again, then walks by him, stabbing her father on the bicep with one pointed fingernail. Her father glances at Jill, then to the window. Then he closes his eyes. Jill walks off, circling the tables.
Her younger self has found another napkin. She’s drawing a circle attached to a vertical line – the noose.
“I’m going to take a piss.” Her father stands up, then grabs his wallet from the table and shoves it, hands shaky, into his jeans.
“Okay.” Her younger self is drawing lines, setting up the game, so that he can guess the word she’s chosen. Audrey remembers the word: “turnip.”
Her father registers Audrey, still standing awkwardly inches from their table. She takes a step towards him, just as he takes a step away from her, a backwards step, his hands outstretched, open palmed, shaking his head, like he knows she is going to try to stop him. Like he doesn’t recognize her as anything but an impediment to his escape.
The lights. Through the window. Bright. Fierce.
Audrey has it ready – “If you don’t stay, you will always regret this moment.” – and yet, she doesn’t know if it is true. She only knows what happens to the people left behind. By the time she comes up with – “Your daughter won’t get over it.” – he is turning around and fleeing in the direction of the exit near the bathroom. He is slipping away, and she could shout at him. But instead, Audrey whispers, “Daddy?” Not loud enough for him to hear. Because, for the first time, Audrey wants him to leave, to escape unharmed, to be free, to maybe get the chance to start again.
He opens the glass exit door, his back to her as he joins the darkness. The door shuts. Nobody seems to notice his escape; except she can hear someone behind her breathing in quick gasps. The smell of lemons. Audrey turns around.
Jill paces protectively close to her younger self, her face strained, her barrettes drooping closer to her pink-tinged ears. She ignores the customers trying to get her attention.
Audrey sits back down at her table, the salad, already limp, having appeared sometime while she was watching her father leave, perhaps delivered by Jill or someone trying to help her out, noticing Jill is out of sorts. Yes, another waitress, nameplate Cindy, is taking over, orbiting Jill’s customers as Jill hovers by her younger self. That Audrey is lifting up her chin, realizing her father has not yet returned.
Audrey can barely see the police officers running in the night through the parking lot, surrounding the building.
(“Is she going to try the salad now?” my daughter asks. “I don’t know,” I say. “Would that affect the timeline?” “Anything can,” my daughter says in her best, haughty knowing voice.)
In the confusion, as officers creep into the restaurant, guns drawn, searching for her father, Audrey’s younger self looks around the room, increasingly frantic. Jill grabs her, holding her, touching her hair.
Audrey cries alone, while the other Audrey, the young girl, presses against Jill for the brief warmth the moment allows her.
Audrey remembers now, knows that Jill is whispering to her younger self:
“Pretend you are floating away on angel wings.”