Louise pulled into an empty parking spot on the far side of the lot and killed the engine. Taking a last drag from the first cigarette she had smoked in a month she pitched the butt into the gutter with a whispered curse. She was disgusted with herself for picking up the habit again, but the last week had been the most stressful yet, and all signs pointed to things getting worse. Her marriage was over except for the papers she was having trouble getting up the nerve to sign, her job was in jeopardy, and the thick fog rolling through River City for the last few days was enough to depress anyone.
She took a deep breath of damp air and had a coughing fit. Great.
But she didn't toss the cigarette pack into the trash...cough or not, they were too darn expensive to toss away, and she knew she would be wanting another one soon enough. The proposed layoffs at River City General Hospital were stressing out the already overtaxed staff. In her department alone five nurses and ten aides were on the chopping block...she didn't see how they would be able to give an adequate level of care to the patients. She had met her shop steward in the ladies room earlier that evening...Kelly had been crying, the negotiations had been going so badly. Louise couldn't believe how stupid management was - didn't they realize how these layoffs would affect the patients? And they would lose a lot of good people in the process -Louise herself was thinking about leaving the area in search of a more stable job. It wasn't like there was all that much to keep her in her hometown...not anymore.
She walked across the parking lot...Papa Tony's was busy tonight, shrouded in golden fog and the rich smell of baking bread and tomato sauce. Louise pushed the door open and looked at her watch - still fifteen minutes until her pie was done, but it was on the way home and she didn't see the point in having to backtrack. Especially on a cold and dreary night like this.
Tony himself was in the kitchen, as usual, making crispy thin crust pizza and meatball subs for the late crowd coming off the night shifts at Harmon Textiles and River City General Hospital. He nodded to Louise, but was busy making up the orders with his son Angelo. Daughter Mary was on the register, and gave Louise a distracted wave with a guest check. None of them were ever much for chatting with the customers anyway...never had been. They were too busy cooking and serving the best Italian food in the tri-state area. Louise remembered coming in on Friday nights ever since she was in highschool. It seemed like everyone they knew went to Tony's on Fridays. It was where she and her husband had gone on their first date. Even during Lent it was busy...plain cheese pizzas, Greek salads loaded with salty feta and black olives, spinach and cheese calzones...Louise never minded having to pass on meat if she could have her slice and a Coke. Her mouth watered at the thought of biting into the crunchy crust, sweet and tangy sauce and gooey, melted cheese.
Tonight was no exception. A low hum of conversation hung in the air like the smells of garlic and basil and the radio behind the counter played golden oldies that were brand new when the first bricks for the building were cemented together. A lot of memories were tied up in this place, for a lot of people.
Louise looked for an empty table where she could wait for her order, but the booths were all occupied and there were five other people in the takeout line. She was glad that she prepaid over the phone, but wished she could sit. Her feet were aching after her ten hour shift.
Over in a corner booth, she saw Barney Trumbull and was startled enough to give him a wave. He lived over in the Heights, had moved there a few months ago and hadn't been back to the old neighborhood since. To her surprise, he waved back, and motioned her over.
She was taken aback...she hadn't expected that. Barney seldom was in a chatty mood lately, and the last time she had seen him he had been borderline rude. But at least she could sit for a few minutes.
Walking across the room, Louise passed through a cloud of savory steam from the ovens... It would cling to her hair, but that was ok. It was a scent that spoke of home and friendship. She needed that tonight.
"Hello, Barney! How are you?" She cringed inside, sure he would hear the falsely cheery tone of voice, but he seemed oblivious.
"I'm all right, all things considered." He sighed melodramatically. She smothered a grin. He was always melodramatic - that was one of the things she liked about him, until she didn't. Right now, she found it funny. He shook his head.
"I hate end of term. Oh no, don't laugh...I've read more bad prose in the last hour than any man should have to, and I still have seventy-three final essays to grade by Monday morning. My life sucks... I don't know what I was thinking, becoming a high school English teacher. I'd kill myself but my calzone will be ready shortly and that's worth living for. So... how's things with you?"
Louise sank into the banquette opposite her friend.
"Not so good, Barney. They're talking layoffs, again. This time, it's across the board...all departments." He blinked and pushed his glasses up his nose, leaning forward.
"Oh God, Louise... I'm so sorry...But, you have seniority, right? I mean, wouldn't the union...?" She shook her head and fought down a wave of helpless anger.
"They can't do a thing about this. Believe me, that was the first thing I asked the shop steward."
They say in glum silence for a few minutes, but it was a comfortable glum silence. Louise missed this kind of companionship.
Tony came over to the booth and put the boxes with their orders on the table with Barney's stack of papers. Louise sighed and picked up the warm pizza box with her name on it.
"Well, I should be getting home...I gotta feed the cat. He's probably climbing the walls by now." She managed a tired half-smile, embarrassed by having admitted her fears and bringing Barney even further down. She felt bad about that...he looked as lost as she felt. Barney nodded. She felt her cheeks flame with shame. She shouldn't have dumped on him. She didn't have the right to. Not anymore.
"Louise?" He spoke tentatively... probably afraid she'll come out with some other depressing thing, she thought. "Yes?"
"I was wondering...I know that the divorce papers haven't been finalized yet... It's not like I expect you to change your mind, or anything...but... D'you want to have dinner tonight? Together, I mean? I don't think I can stand to grade anymore exams tonight, and I can't eat a whole meatball and sausage calzone by myself...I don't know what I was thinking..."
Louise smiled... for the first time in days, it felt like.
"Well, I have a whole medium veggie pizza to try to eat...we could do half and half?"
Barney smiled and started gathering his paperwork.
"Well, jeez Louise..." She rolled her eyes at the corny joke. "We'll have our work cut out for us won't we? We'll start with just a slice, and see what happens... ok?"
Their eyes met, and Louise felt unexpected butterflies looking at her estranged husband.
"Yes... just a slice..."