“Till Then”-Part 3

The little stories dad had put together—loosely based on several incidents and cleaned up for familial consumption—now seemed like insulting deceptions. He liked this girl and began to suspect the reason Dinger trashed her was because she was a lot smarter—and certainly stronger in terms of character—than him. So why would a girl like this get involved with a jerk like Dinger? he wondered—but never really figured out.

After sizing her up for 10 or 15 minutes, Dad decided to go with something Mark Twain once said—“When all else fails, tell the truth.”

“Arthur—we called him “Dinger,” dad explained, “and I and some others were drinking the night before he was killed. We agreed if anyone died one of the others would go to the dead guy’s family and tell nice, funny stories about him.”

“Nice”—“funny” stories?” Sally questioned with a cynical edge to her voice, “You mean stories that leave out the brainless whores, drinking until puking, using people, getting into stupid fights and doing a lazy, half-ass job?”

Dad was a bit startled—back then nice girls didn’t talk like that. But he collected himself and thought, every time this girl opened her pretty mouth he was more and more impressed. He had met very few people—of ether gender—that were as straight-forward and smart—as this young woman. The more she talked the more he respected—and liked her.

“Yeah,” dad said with a self-conscious smirk—taking a swallow of coke.

Tears suddenly welled up in her eyes. She took a deep breath.

“I won’t ask you to share anything you’re not comfortable with,” Sally said. “But I will ask you to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ ”

Sally studied dad’s face for a second then cleared her throat.

“The Arthur I went out with before he was drafted,” she began, “could be fun—tell jokes, make you feel good—make you like him. But once you got to know him you found out he didn’t give a damn about anyone but himself. You found out that he would talk about you behind your back—even stab you in the back—and wasn’t even careful about it. He was pretty dumb actually.”

She dabbed at her tears with a paper napkin—trying to prevent her eye make-up from running.

“We are talking about the same man—aren’t we?” she said, again looking directly at dad.

Dad nodded silently.

“He said things about me,” Sally proffered, “didn’t he? Things that, if they were said about your mother or sister weren’t very—“nice” or “funny?””

Dad sighed and nodded silently again. He started to take a bite of his hamburger but put it down.

“”Yes Sally,” dad replied, “he did.”

“Did he ever say anything about marrying me?” she asked with a focused expression on her face.

“He wasn’t going to marry you Sally,” dad said in a flat voice.

“Did he make jokes about it or make fun of me?” she continued.

“Yes on both accounts Sally,” Dad responded.

Tears flowed down the girl’s cheeks as she sobbed quietly, helpless and alone on the vinyl booth seat. Dad was on the verge of tears himself he felt so badly for her. Sally took several deep breaths.

“I just—had hoped what people said he was really like… That they were wrong,” she added. “That I could see something others didn’t. I was just one more person he used—a piece of meat…”

They sat listening to the Hilltopper’s “Till Then,” for a moment. Sally’s meal grew cold on her plate as did dad’s.

“Excuse me,” Sally said as she abruptly got up from her chair and retreated to the lady’s room. When she returned five minutes later her face was freshly scrubbed and make-up repaired.

Sally asked a few polite questions about Dad’s plans for the future. He responded politely but could see she was lost in her own pain and probably not even hearing his words. Both knew the conversation was over. Dad paid the bill and as they stepped out into the cool night air, Tony Martin was crooning, “Stranger in Paradise.”

“I’ll take you home,” she said as they got into her car and shut the doors.

“To Syracuse?—no—just take me out to the highway where you found me,” dad responded. He could tell she was just being polite—that she would have done it if he concurred but really didn’t want to. “Do you have any friends you can talk to tonight?” he said.

The girl nodded vacantly, turned on the ignition, then the radio and put the car in gear.

A few minutes later they were parked on the shoulder of the four lane highway. As cars blew past—headlights splitting the darkness—lighting the guard rails—they sat awkwardly—listening to Roy Hamilton sing, “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” trying to figure out a graceful way to say goodbye. Both were drawn to the other but it didn’t feel right—the whole evening had been poisoned.

“Well,” dad finally said opening the door and stepping out onto the gravel, “it was nice meeting you Sally. I’m sorry about…”

“Yeah,” Sally interrupted, staring sadly through the windshield, “I’m sorry too. But thank you. Not many people would have been as honest as you. You’re exactly what I needed—not that bullshit people shovel because they’re afraid of hurting your feelings.”

“Yeah—well, you deserve to know the truth Sally,” Dad said. “I—couldn’t lie to you. I like you.”

“And I like you too,” she replied holding on to the steering wheel and looking down at the floor. Dad studied her as she sat in the driver’s seat—as in the diner she seemed so small and vulnerable—yet stubbornly unwilling to succumb to life’s savage stupidities.

“Maybe if you’re up here again some time…” she said—still looking down at the floor as fresh tears flowed down her cheeks.

“Yeah, maybe…” he said through the open window as he shut the door.

Dad watched the red tail lights of the car grow smaller as the car accelerated into the upstate New York night then turned his back and standing in the headlight glare, put out his thumb. As he focused his attention on approaching traffic he could hear the music from Sally’s car radio behind him, receding into the darkness—the Hilltoppers singing, “Till Then.”

End Part three. End story.

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