This is a book of short stories taken from the things I saw and heard in my childhood in the factory town of Ansonia in southwestern Connecticut.
Most of these stories, or as true as I recall them because I witnessed these events many years ago through the eyes of child and are retold to you now with the pen and hindsight of an older man.
The only exception is the story Beat Time which is based on the disappearance of Beat poet Lew Welch. Decades before I knew who Welch was, I was told that he had made his from California to New Haven, Connecticut, where was an alcoholic living in a mission. The notion fascinated me and I filed it away but never forgot it.
The collected stories are loosely modeled around Joyce’s novel, Dubliners (I also borrowed from the novels character and place names. Ivy Day, my character in “Local Orphan is Hero” is also the name of chapter in Dubliners, etc.) and like Joyce I wanted to write about my people, the people I knew as a child, the working class in small town America and I wanted to give a complete view of them as well. As a result the stories are about the divorced, Gays, black people, the working poor, the middle class, the lost and the found, the contented and the discontented.
Conversely many of the stories in this book are about starting life over again as a result of suicide (The Hanging Party, Small Town Tragedy, Beat Time) or from a near death experience (Anna Bell Lee and the Charge of the Light Brigade, A Brief Summer) and natural occurring death. (The Best Laid Plans, The Winter Years, Balanced and Serene)
With the exception of Jesus Loves Shaqunda, in each story there is a rebirth from the death. (Shaqunda is reported as having died of pneumonia in The Winter Years)
Sal, the desperate and depressed divorcee in Things Change, changes his life in Lunch Hour when asks the waitress for a date and she accepts. (Which we learn in Closing Time, the last story in the book) In The Arranged Time, Thisby is given the option of change and whether she takes it or, we don’t know. The death of Greta’s husband in A Matter of Time has led her to the diner and into the waiting arms of the outgoing and loveable Gabe.
Although the book is based on three sets of time (breakfast, lunch and dinner) and the diner is opened in the early morning and closed at night, time stands still inside the Diner. The hour on the big clock on the wall never changes time and much like my memories of that place, everything remains the same.
The Winter Years
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 consommé 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.
The Valley Lives
By Marion Marchetto, author of The Bridgewater Chronicles on October 15, 2015
Short Stores from a Small Town is set in The Valley (known to outsiders as The Lower Naugatuck Valley) in Connecticut. While the short stories are contemporary they provide insight into the timeless qualities of an Industrial Era community and the values and morals of the people who live there. Some are first or second generation Americans, some are transplants, yet each takes on the mantle of Valleyite and wears it proudly. It isn't easy for an author to take the reader on a journey down memory lane and involve the reader in the life stories of a group of seemingly unrelated characters. I say seemingly because by book's end the reader will realize that he/she has done more than meet a group of loosely related characters.
We meet all of the characters during a one-day time period as each of them finds their way to the Valley Diner on a rainy autumn day. From our first meeting with Angel, the educationally challenged man who opens and closes the diner, to our farewell for the day to the young waitress whose smile hides her despair we meet a cross section of the Valley population. Rich, poor, ambitious, and not so ambitious, each life proves that there is more to it beneath the surface. And the one thing that binds these lives together is The Valley itself. Not so much a place (or a memory) but an almost palpable living thing that becomes a part of its inhabitants.
Let me be the first the congratulate author John William Tuohy on a job well done. He has evoked the heart of The Valley and in doing so brought to life the fabric that Valleyites wear as a mantle of pride. While set in a specific region of the country, the stories that unfold within the pages of this slim volume are similar to those that live in many a small town from coast to coast.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
John William Tuohy is a writer who lives in Washington DC. He holds an MFA in writing from Lindenwood University.
He is the author of No Time to Say Goodbye: Memoirs of a Life in Foster Care and Short Stories from a Small Town. He is also the author of numerous non-fiction on the history of organized crime including the ground break biography of bootlegger Roger Tuohy "When Capone's Mob Murdered Touhy" and "Guns and Glamour: A History of Organized Crime in Chicago."
His non-fiction crime short stories have appeared in The New Criminologist, American Mafia and other publications. John won the City of Chicago's Celtic Playfest for his work The Hannigan's of Beverly, and his short story fiction work, Karma Finds Franny Glass, appeared in AdmitTwo Magazine in October of 2008.
His play, Cyberdate.Com, was chosen for a public performance at the Actors Chapel in Manhattan in February of 2007 as part of the groups Reading Series for New York project. In June of 2008, the play won the Virginia Theater of The First Amendment Award for best new play.