Chapter 29 of The Empty City

By Andrew Looney

At 3:13 in the morning, Torrence and Maria took seats at a booth in a diner on the north side of town. The diner had once been a masterpiece of "Streamline Moderne" architecture, but over the years it had become pretty run down. Most of the Art Deco ornamentation had worn out or been stolen or broken by vandals. Everything had a sort of tarnished look to it, but the lights were bright, and the cheerful green neon, reading "Open 24 Hours," still shone in the window. Torrence told the old man behind the counter that they wanted two coffees.

Torrence and Maria sat looking across at each other. The silence was very awkward. Neither could think of anything to say. The coffee arrived, and they were able to clear the silence by concentrating intensely on the process of drinking the coffee.

After the coffee was all gone, however, the silence returned.

Torrence rummaged in his pocket and came up with a pencil. He began to doodle on the paper placemat. Sketching always eased his tension.

Maria took an immediate interest. "What are you drawing?"

"Oh, I'm just sketching." He drew a little picture of an ocean liner sinking.

"You draw pretty good," said Maria. She felt she had to say something.

Torrence brightened up. "I'm a cartoonist," he said. "I do a strip for a small magazine called The Midnight Xerox. Ever read it?"

Maria pursed her lips. "Sorry, no."

"Oh, well, it's a very small magazine, and it doesn't come out very often."

"I'll keep my eyes open for it."

Torrence drew a quick caricature of the old man behind the counter.

"Hey, that's great!" said Maria. This time she was actually impressed.

Torrence then looked right at Maria and began to sketch her.

"Hey, stop that!" she said. She turned her head to the side, and held her hand up in front of her face.

"Oh, come on!" said Torrence. "It won't hurt. Honestly, I'll never understand women. They spend hours and hours putting on makeup, shopping for just the right clothes, getting these wacky haircuts, all so they can look 'perfect.' But when you try to preserve that perfection, they raise a big fuss. I'll bet you hate having your picture taken, too."

"Yup."

"Why?"

"Because pictures of me always come out looking bad."

"Yeah, sure. Look, this one will come out good."

Maria rolled her eyes, but finally sat still and allowed Torrence to sketch her. The picture came out quite well, except that the circular stain on the placemat, caused by Torrence's coffee cup, ended up being a bit too close to Maria's shoulder. Maria smiled broadly as she studied the flattering portrait.

"You can have that if you'd like."

"Can I?" Maria was delighted.

"If you want, we could stop off at my place and I could show you some of my other artwork. I've filled up a lot of sketchbooks."

Maria gazed suspiciously into Torrence's innocent, honest eyes. "Where do you live?" she asked.

"In a bomb shelter," said Torrence.

Maria scowled skeptically.

Torrence became defensive. "It's true! Really!"

"All right," said Maria. "Let's go."




Copyright © 1991 by Andrew Looney.