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Last Lunch With Lily


Harry Buschman

Tomorrow he would requisition a few empty boxes from the supply room and  clean out his desk. And that would be it. Finished! CBS could mail the stuff to him in Stamford, he wouldn't have to drive down and go through the hassle of getting it home.

But all that could wait until tomorrow. Friday. "Today is Thursday," he reminded himself.

For the last 15 years he lunched with Lily Watts on Thursday -- always on Thursday. That way they wouldn't miss a week, if he or she was busy on Thursday, they'd make it Wednesday or Friday. Neither of them wanted to miss a week without having lunch together at "La Vigna." It made the rest of the week go quickly. But this was the last lunch. He looked at the time on his new gold watch. 11:15. "Heavy damn thing -- too much gold," he thought, "like all retirement watches, too big, too formidable, as though time was the only important thing left to me." He read the inscription again .... "To Lowell Morton, from everyone in the CBS family, for his thirty-five years of faithful service." ....  "Well .... let's not get sentimental about it," Lowell thought, "Everybody knows I would have left a hundred times if I got a better offer -- it wouldn't have to be much better either."

He called Lily and she let him pick the restaurant as always. "La Vigna of course," he said firmly, as though there was no question about it. After all, it was their favorite. La Vigna was the only restaurant on 46th Street that hadn't changed hands in 15 years and that was reason enough to have their last lunch there -- at the same table. "You're a sentimental old fool," she laughed. "Okay 12:15." He looked at his new watch again, 11:25 .... "I'm going to have to stop this," he thought, "I'm checking it every ten minutes."

Lily! She was thirty five when he first met her at La Vigna. He would never have spoken to her if it hadn't been for Mario, the head waiter. She was tall, almost as tall as he was, with an Irish tilt to her nose and a combination of jet black hair and milky white skin. He saw her there week after week, eating alone, but because of his natural shyness with women, and because of a certain aloofness in her, they never got any further than a nod and a smile of recognition.

Then finally, in exasperation, Mario stepped in ....

"Look, Mr. Morton, these tables are for four. Do you realize I am losing six customers every Thursday because you and this lovely lady choose to eat alone?  You will drive me out of business!" He took Lowell by the arm and led him to Lily's table. "Miss Watts, may I present Mr. Morton? Six weeks you have both enjoyed the food at La Vigna, and I have slowly been losing my shirt. Would both of you mind sitting together? Here, at the same table -- for your cooperation in this matter I will contribute a free dessert for both of you."

It took them both by surprise, but it secretly pleased them as well. Mario's
solution seemed to be just what the doctor ordered.

"My name is Lowell Morton, I hope this is agreeable to you." He sat down gingerly and Mario set the table for two, he even lit the candle between them.

"I'm Lily Watts. This is really very embarrassing, but it's not as though we've never seen each other here before."

"I'm really very pleased, Miss Watts, it's just that I ...."

"It's Mrs. Watts."

"Oh! I'm sorry .... I mean, I just assumed ...." He turned to Mario for help, but Mario had already disappeared in the kitchen.

"It's all right Mr. Morton -- believe me. Please stay. I'd love someone to talk to."

Such a simple beginning. Within the short space of time it takes to eat a light Italian lunch, Lowell learned Lily's marriage was on the rocks, Lily learned Lowell was a bachelor, Lily was a legal secretary, Lowell was a talent scout for CBS, and when they said goodbye the first day, they both glanced quickly at the other's lips. They established the groundwork for a relationship that lasted fifteen years.

They fashioned a tenuous link between themselves that survived the discord of  their professional lives, and their own personal lives as well. Lily worked with lawyers and litigants, and she suffered an endless series of broken romances in her private life. Lowell represented the lowest species of creative life in the acting profession -- that of the television soap opera thespian, the daily grind of it soured him against relationships of any kind except for that of his weekly lunch with Lily. Their troubled lives were forgotten for an hour or two every Thursday at La Vigna.

As he walked up 6th Avenue that final Thursday, he could still recall every detail of the first meeting. He still called it 6th Avenue even though it had been known as Avenue of the Americas for twenty years. He recalled the elevated railway line, the Center Theater, Hurley's bar and the pawn shops that kept the actors in beer money. All gone now, replaced by mirrored glass buildings, like giant anonymous gravestones each of them forty stories high and indistinguishable one from the other.

He stood at 48th Street with forty other people waiting for the light to change. Across from him on the opposite corner, like an opposing army, a similar group stood waiting to charge when the light turned green. But when it did, instead of the clash of arms, the people flowed through each other like schools of fish, never touching or looking into the other's eyes. "If there should be casualties," he wondered .... "would this ritual of crossing the street pause for a moment until the dead had been pulled to the side of the road?"

Walking downtown he kept to the right, close to the buildings -- walking uptown, the others kept to their right, but out by the curb where the street peddlers sold cardboard luggage and bootleg CD's. The rights of way of the street! Across the broad avenue, a mirror ritual was being enacted. Would it be opposite to this in England, he wondered -- he'd been there twice and couldn't remember.

In any case, it didn't matter -- nothing mattered. Lowell Morton was now  officially retired. A gentleman of leisure. He looked at the watch again, the large golden Rolex. A little loose for his wrist perhaps but wickedly impressive all the same, the kind of a watch he would have enjoyed flashing and telling the time when he was a working man and time meant something. Now? .... what difference did it make now? Nobody would think to ask an old man what time it is.  He wondered if Lily would be impressed.

He turned west on 46th Street and looked at his watch again, 12:15. Right on time! This lunch would be different from all the others, he was going to make his move after all these years, that much was for sure. "Took you long enough, Lowell," he muttered as he set his sights on La Vigna half way down the street. He squared his shoulders and rehearsed what he was going to say and how he  was going to say it. "We've thrown away the best years of our lives, Lily. Let's not let the rest get away from us." Yes, he would say these things and Lily would lower her eyes and say ..... what would she say? He felt strange -- a tingly feeling. Suppose she didn't say yes? Maybe Thursday was all it was ever meant to be. What did he have to offer Lily? She was still a young woman. A woman of fifty, especially a woman like Lily would have greater expectations than an old man like Lowell Morton.

The thought caused him to stop in his tracks. What ever gave him such a crazy  idea? Of course that's all it was -- it was lunch on Thursday with Lily -- nothing more, an opportunity to open up and talk to someone -- nothing more. They were just two lonely people! There was a tightness across his chest. She would have given him a signal long ago if .... he had no grounds to assume she would ever .... of course not. He found himself breathing heavily. The breathing was painful, so he took shallow quick breaths and backed up against the marble wall of the Time and Life building. He stood looking up at the sun. It was just past noon, the only time of day the sun admitted a narrow shaft of light to pierce the East and West canyons of midtown Manhattan, and it seemed to him that he was standing at the bottom of a deep well, or a grave perhaps.

He eased himself down to a sitting position on the sidewalk. There, that was better! The pain eased somewhat. He drew his knees up to his chest, and yes! That was better still. "Nobody will notice me here. You can do things like this in Manhattan .... I'll spend a moment here and think about Lily and me," he said to himself .... "it will help to ease the pain."


Lily looked at her watch -- 12:45! What on earth was keeping him? She had a  feeling all morning that this lunch, this final lunch, might be the beginning of a change in their strange relationship. Maybe it would take something like the finality of this last lunch to wake both of them up. But where was he? He was never late.

"12:50! Well, that's that -- stood up! I guess he had something better to do." She checked her face in her compact mirror, a rising resentment had brought color to her cheeks and she tried to compose herself. She drummed her fingers on the checkered tablecloth. She had work to do! She had to download the Jackson vs Lippincott paternity suit trial, she had to contact Judge O'Neill -- she couldn't sit here all afternoon! She waved to Mario.

"Mario, I've got to go. If Mr. Morton ever gets here .... well just tell him I couldn't wait any longer."

"It's not like him, Miss Watts. I'm sure he'll be here any minute."

Lily didn't answer. She walked out into the bright sunshine and turned for the corner. She saw the flashing lights of an ambulance and a crowd of people and she decided to walk back to work the other way. A crowd was the last thing she wanted.

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