Unimportant

by Erik D. Harshman

 

Kemp cut through the crowd and eventually spotted Jeremy Ivans sitting at a table for two, staring out the eighth story window at the Chicago streets below.

Taking off his jacket in a fluid motion that he’d learned from watching old videos of Bill Burroughs, Kemp draped his jacket over the back of his chair and sat down, rolling up his sleeves.

“Hugo Boss?” Ivans’ face inched back slightly.

Please!” Kemp snorted, “nothing so ostentatious… It’s Paul Fredricks.”

“What’s that?”

“They’re a mail-order clothing company out of Pennsylvania. Once a year they rent out a hotel suite in Pittsburgh, fly me out there and bring out their entire inventory, along with a tailor. I try stuff on. If I like it, they modify it to fit me, then I get it for free.”

“What’s the catch?”

“Whenever I’m on a book tour, or a talk show, whatever, I mention their name and the fact that I wear their stuff. That’s the catch.”

“So you sold out.”

Kemp laughed through his nose. “You sonofabitchbastard! No!… Look, ‘selling out,’ as the kids call it… as you and I used it back in the nineties, means sacrificing your dignity, your artistic integrity in order to obtain mainstream success and a larger, more diverse audience. It’s being bent over a barrel by corporate scumbags who want to use an artist for their own means. These scumbags make the artist produce work and do things the artist would normally never do. But both parties submit to this ridiculousness for the money. I’m not doing that! I found a creative way to get free clothes. And, I’ll have you know, I have a list of other shit I will gladly endorse, stuff I use on a regular basis, just so I can get a lifetime supply of this shit.”

“Such as?” Ivans asked, projecting an amused smile over the rim of his wine glass as he emptied it.

“Switzer’s Licorice–”

“Thought they only sold that in St. Louis?”

“So what!”

“Didn’t you go to school with Matt Switzer?”

“Yeah.”

“And weren’t his grandfather and father patients of your dad?”

Kemp sighed. “So… Switzer’s Licorice. Smart Water. Jägermeister. Red Bull.”

“Oy!” Ivans groaned and signaled for another glass of wine.

“Dickie’s workwear.”

“That’d be a conflict of interest.”

“Whatever. KY Jelly. Kiwi shoe polish. Old Spice.”

Ivans jolted as if galvanized. “Fuckin’ Old Spice? Kemp! Seriously?”

What? I think every man should smell and feel like Ernest Hemingway. What’s your problem?”

“What are you drinking?”

“What’re you swilling?”

“Ah…” Ivans looked down into his glass, “Merlot. I think.”

Somewhere down Wabash a heavy, god-sized CRASH transmitted through downtown, forcibly muting every sidewalk conversation.

“Fuck was that?” Kemp craned his head over his left shoulder.

“Construction, I guess.” Ivans shrugged. “Can we get down to business?”

“Oh, sure… Yeah… You want me to sit stoically while you cry in your cereal for a few hours. Gotcha.”

“Oh, fuck off, Kemp.”

“And then I’ll dispense some world-weary, but overtly misogynistic advice and we can both walk away drunk, contented but vaguely pissed off… That’s if all goes well. If I fuck up my advice you could walk away full of rape… like a Hell’s Angels biker who’s been on a week-long snuff porn bender in his shack.”

Ivans sat back. “Can we be serious?”

“I’m sorry. Go on.”

Kemp listened as his gaze drifted toward the window. Down Wabash Avenue prismatic human tendrils coursed down a thoroughfare of silent, stilted cars. “What’s going on down there?”

Ivans leaned towards the window. “Don’t know. Fire drill?”

What? You can’t be serious.”

A young Indian woman, college age maybe, in a white blouse and black skirt shuffled past Ivans and Kemp’s table. She was taking off her high-heeled shoes as she ran. Kemp grabbed her arm softly.

“Heyhey! Can you tell us what’s happening?”

“Something came out of Lake Michigan.”

“Something?”

“Like a monster.”

Really? What does it look like? A giant lizard? Giant ape? Giant turtle? What?”

“I don’t know. But it’s big. And old, like dinosaur old. It’s started chewing on the side of the Sears Tower.”

“Well, that’s no good. Is it a biped or quadruped?”

The girl’s face scrunched. “A what?”

“Never mind,” Kemp sighed.

“Anyhow, so Janie.” Ivans began as he reached to receive his new Merlot from the waitress. “And he’ll have the same.” Ivans indicated Kemp. The waitress nodded and shuffled off.

“So,” Kemp sighed, “Janie…”

*****

“Kemp, I don’t think closure will make me happy.” Ivans lowered his voice.

“Nothing about this situation is supposed to make you happy, Jer. Women aren’t supposed to make us happy. They’re supposed to make us miserable and we’re supposed to enjoy it.”

“That’s a lot of supposing.”

“There’s a great dichotomy between how things do work and how they should work. We, people, have made a great mess of the modern social, moral, and emotional dynamic. In doing so, we’ve created a great deal of supposition.” Kemp sighed, sat back, and folded his hands over his lap.

Outside, Michael Bay sound effects dominated: the whining of metal, steel girders or maybe the tracks of the “L” train, bending against their will and definition, shuddering; muffled explosions; glass confetti screaming and splinking against other windows.

“This relationship only lasted a handful of months.” Ivans shook his head as he married his mouth with that of the wine glass.

“Did I ever tell you about that phase in my life when I’d have two relationships, virtually back-to-back and the combined time for both relationships would be less than two years? I’d then take a year and a half to two years off, intentionally or unintentionally, then the process would start all over again.”

“Really?”

“That is fact.”

“And how about now?”

“Well,” Kemp reached for his wine glass. “I think Deidre broke the cycle. When she and I dated, for better or worse, for two years I think that disrupted the pattern.”

“You really believe that?”

“It stands to reason. I truly do believe the universe works in cycles. I mean, seriously, can you think of anyone who had a good year in 2010?”

Ivans shrugged.

“Exactly.” Kemp gulped the rest of his wine and signaled for another while his mouth was still clasped to the breast-sized glass.

Kemp overheard timorous whispers coming from the wood-paneled bar area.

“What do you think it is?”

“CNN says the military can’t kill it. I think it swam up from Hell.”

“Does it have horns or cloven feet?”

“No. It looks like something out of a museum.”

“Okay, then it’s not from Hell! Sheeeesh!”

“I hate to interrupt,” Kemp cleared his throat.

Ivans waved away the comment.

“But are we going to get some food?”

“I think the kitchen’s closed.”

“Alright, then we’ll keep drinking. No problem.”

*****

“And why exactly did the split occur?” Kemp adjusted in his seat, his leg was falling asleep.

Ivans shrugged. “She didn’t say, really. She just split.”

“Over the phone? E-mail? In person?”

“In person.”

Kemp deliberated a moment. “Do you think it would’ve been better if she’d done it facelessly?”

“I never thought of it like that. I don’t know.”

Outside, the soundtracks of James Cameron persisted: the belligerent churning of automatic gunfire, the mechanized toiling of tank wheels, the oracular punching of mortar shell cannons and some strange screeching, like a bat caught in a thin grain silo.

“In all reality,” Kemp ran his fingers absently along the stand at the base of his wine glass, “you’re back to square one. You were alone before, you’ve been alone for so much of your life, as I have, that the break shouldn’t affect you all that much.”

Shouldn’t, but it does.”

“I know,” Kemp sighed.

A flaming car, something expensive, perhaps a Bugatti Veyron, soared past the window.

Ivans barely glanced. “Is that car Swedish?”

“You know I don’t know anything about cars.”

“Yeah. So how long will it hurt, Kemp?”

Fuck! You’re asking me? Michelle hasn’t stopped draining me since I realized I fucked up in letting her go. That was in late 2004. I still miss her. The sex, the companionship; I still worry, I mean really worry to the point of it keeping me up most nights, that I’ll never sufficiently replace her. I’ll find someone new, someone gorgeous, someone gothy and aesthetically comparable on all levels, and I’ll still hold her up to the Michelle benchmark.”

“So it’s hopeless?”

“It’s not hopeless. Forgive my saying, but you’re still inexperienced. You have time. You haven’t found the End-All-Be-All yet. When you do, if you let her go… Well, then you’re in trouble. Until then… I don’t know what to tell you. Have fun. I’d tell you not to get attached, but that runs contrary to what I believe.”

“Which is?” Ivans signaled for two more glasses of wine.

The waitress’s expression communicated both a sneer and a look of disgusted concern, for whom, Ivans wasn’t certain; he just wanted the damn Merlot.

Kemp tightened his tie. Maybe I’ll choke. Then I’ll be saved and won’t have to explain this.

“I believe in love, not lust. I think perhaps your late teens and early twenties are okay for having flings and lustful fun. But that didn’t really happen for me. I mean, I had opportunities for flings and meaningless fucks in college, but I passed them up for solid, committed, monogamous relationships. And I think I’m a better person for that. I can sustain long-term relationships and I can compromise and problem-solve in order to make things work. If I’d been a swinging cocksmith, I think I’d probably have a slew of miserable, debilitating diseases right now, or I’d be a pretty shallow, emotionally bankrupt asshole. However, the problem at hand for you and I is that our late teens and early twenties are over. Society tells us that, because we’re in our thirties, we need to start looking towards ‘settling down,’ buying a minivan, a house in the ’burbs, giving up on life and marrying a hot woman who’ll get fat and bitchy and complacent over time. A woman who’ll eventually medicate herself beyond emotional, or even physical, response through prescription meds and Chardonnay. Then we’re supposed to have kids. Maybe I’m selfish, but right now I want my time, space, and money all to myself.”

“I thought you gave away most of your money to charities?”

“Yeah, well. The point is: you have kids, they sap you, and more often than not you wind up getting annoyed with them, because love costs, man, and your kids will more than likely wind up resenting you. This happened to my grandfather. This happened to my father. Why shouldn’t it happen with you and me? We want to think to think that we’d be different. But who knows. History does repeat itself.”

“So it’s best not to even try?”

Kemp shook his head and reached for his Merlot. “I’m not saying that. I’m saying maybe it’s a blessing when we’re left alone. Maybe we need break-ups. Maybe women aren’t the answer. Maybe loneliness, celibacy, longing… Perchance these are the things that drive us. I don’t know about you, but I get a hell of a lot less done, both in life and in my writing, when I’m with a woman. When I’m single is when my work flourishes.”

“I concur.”

“Okay then.”

“Where’s our Merlot?”

“Beats me. Is anybody even still here?”

Kemp and Ivans angled their heads down the carpeted pathway that ran alongside their aisle table. They saw nothing but a dark restaurant.

“I guess the bar’s self-serve at this point.” Kemp smiled.

*****

Outside belonged to the Foley sound effects of early Paul Verhoeven and Ridley Scott: a furious suction noise, like a motorized Yankauer catheter tip, coupled with a liquid gurgling noise, the bubbling shuffle of an herbal water pipe, and the crunching only slightly more organic than a kitchen sink garbage disposal. The subsequent gulping reminded Kemp of the surfacing oxygen bubbles of his mother’s scuba tank as he waited for her on the surface of the Atlantic while she ascended from a shark dive. These sounds reigned over downtown Chicago as Kemp and Ivans stumbled from the double doors of the lobby.

Stopping, Kemp straightened his jacket and tie before turning to examine Ivans. “Are you okay? Did this help?”

“I can’t tell. I don’t know if the talk or the wine helped.”

“Eh. Sometimes it’s both. Right now it’s the wine. Time will tell if the lip service did any good.”

“Are you sticking around?”

Kemp waited a moment. “No.” He barked the word. “I’m taking the Amtrak back to St. Louis to see my mother for about a week. Then it’s back to Los Angeles to finish up a few projects. Then it’s back on the road. After that, maybe I’ll relax and annoy everyone who’s filming my latest script by showing up on the set and hanging out.”

“We can’t let it be this long before we talk again,” Ivans sniffed.

“We won’t.” Kemp tried, but a poisonous red fog that bloomed behind his eyes prevented him from recalling exactly how long it had been since they’d last talked.

This is insane. Usually, Jer is the one person I don’t mind speaking to regularly.

“What happened, Kemp?” Ivans’ eyes shuddered wetly.

“I don’t know, man,” Kemp huffed, “I got busy. You fell into relationships. And I won’t lie to you, at first I felt a modicum of jealousy when I found out you were in a relationship.”

“But it was only my second, you’ve had… I don’t know.”

“Only a handful or so more than that, I assure you. Anyhow, I’m always a little envious when my friends find some vague contentment and I’m still stuck wandering around in the dark, alone. But I shook that off and, in the end, I was happy for you. I mean, genuinely fucking happy for you. And I was not only pissed but dismayed when I saw your status on Facebook.”

“You actually look at my Facebook status?”

Kemp shrugged. “I hate post-modern, digital human brochures just as much as you do, but sometimes they’re necessary to find out what’s going on with people out of state and abroad. It also saves time covering the inconsequential details.”

“Is this an inconsequential detail?”

Kemp snorted a laugh.

A crouching silhouette, about twenty stories high, flickered against the infernal film of orange and red that veiled the city. The same impetuous screeching blasphemed through funereal silence as the shadow, thankfully, sulked several blocks west of Kemp and Ivans.

“Again, only time will tell.” Kemp drew Ivans into a hug.

Without further ceremony the hug broke and both men sauntered off in different directions.

 

Walking the Demon Tunnel

by Kiel Stuart

 

She had been walking the demon tunnel for years.

The tunnel was narrow, claustrophobic. If she stood in the middle, she could almost touch the sides.

Demons hovered and flew and lumbered around her. Some of the smaller winged ones looked almost human, a bit like garden-variety fairies, until you saw the malevolence on their little faces. Others resembled glittery insects mad with their own poisons. The bigger ones reminded her of alligators, long-snouted, slow-moving reptiles with mud-colored scales. Everything smelled of cool damp earth and smoking torchlight. There was a maddening familiarity about the demons and the tunnel and her endless walking.

* * * * *

“I can’t believe the fury of inanimate objects,” said Jessie, inviting Lynne inside, but Lynne remained with her back to the door, keys jingling in one hand.

Jessie bubbled on. “I swear they’re out to get me! First that weird knife, the one my mother liked, well, it cut me while it was still in the drainer, just leaped right out!”

Jessie hooted. “And just now I smashed my hand! On Mother’s In/Out box, the metal one like a cheese grater!”

Lynne glanced at her watch. “What was it you wanted?”

“Oh!” cried Jessie. “I forgot. Silly of me, isn’t it, to call you and then—wait a sec, I have something for you—”

She whirled and ran to the table, cracking her knee against a corner of her mother’s old knickknack shelf. A clay figurine
that Jessie had made in school fell off the shelf.

She stopped, took a deep breath. She could still feel her hands, wedging cool slippery clay, arm muscles burning, slamming the musky gray mass onto the board until it was malleable.

“Oh, Lynne! Don’t go,” she called. “It’s here somewhere, I just put it here last night…” She dug through breakfast dishes, bills, receipts, flinging aside empty sugar packets. “Ah, there, see, I knew it!” She pounced on a small cardboard box, snatched it up, ran to the door.

Lynne stared at the package. “What is it?”

“Why, it’s a salt-and-pepper set. Or maybe sugar and flour, I’m not exactly sure. It’s got those big holes in the metal screw tops, you know, and that nice swirly glass…”

“Why don’t you just throw all this crap out?”

Jessie blinked. It would be like throwing out her mother.

“Is this why you called me? I can’t use it.” Lynne slipped out the door.

Closing the door softly, Jessie realized she would not see Lynne again. Most of her friends had drifted away in the month since her mother’s death.

Even Ryan. Jessie’s fiancee had put up with her until last week, and joined the exodus.

Jessie had other companions now, but they were not human.

* * * * *

Port Hollister. Come summer the tourists would be out in force, crowding the little waterfront town, but in October it was too raw for any but the hardiest locals. Low tide; the air smelled of rotten eggs.

Jessie walked. She had walked when she had trouble with Ryan. She walked when Mother had gone into the hospital. She walked when she’d lost her job.

I must get back on track, she told herself, repeating it like a mantra, moving to its rhythm: I must get back on track.

The weather played her like a symphony, little airborne electrocutions everywhere. She pulled gloves onto her shaking hands and then her legs were shaking too.

A young woman came toward her. Shoulder-length dark hair, shiny skin, green sweater.

What an interesting sweater, Jessie thought. Such a shade of green, almost moss, with all those embroideries, like a garden.

Jessie opened her mouth to say, Pardon me, where did you get that? And saw the girl’s eyes.

The were large eyes, brown eyes, rolling wide and frightened, not connecting with anything on the street.

As if the girl was walking through a gauntlet of demons.

Jessie had seen those eyes before. Mother, at the hospital, on that last day, eyes wild above the breathing tube.

Jessie froze. The girl loomed over her, the strange face rippling, changing to that of Mother’s, narrow and pinched, to Jessie’s, round and astonished, then back to the stranger’s. Features boiled in and out of hiding.

Jessie collapsed onto a park bench, shutting her eyes. Go away, crazy girl, she thought, please go away.

When Jessie looked up, Mother sat next to her. But now her eyes were calm.

The wind stilled.

Mother shook her head. “I’m so disappointed in you.”

“I know,” Jessie said, in a child’s voice.

“Why couldn’t you have turned out the way I wanted?”

Jessie felt her eyes prickle.

“Why did you let me die? Why didn’t you save me?”

“Save you?”

“I’m your mother. I gave you life. You should have saved my life in turn.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Lady? Lady? You okay?”

Jessie jerked her head up. A town cop stood over her. She knew her own demon-spitting eyes glared back at him and she quickly looked away.

“I’m fine. Perfectly fine.” She lurched to her feet and ran home.

* * * * *

There was a message from Ryan on the machine. He would come over tomorrow to take back the rest of his things. He suggested she get them ready.

Jessie played the message over and over until his words broke down to a disorder of noise.

She bumbled through the house, trying to gather Ryan’s belongings, bumping into furniture, smashing a knee, an elbow, fear driving her on. Then she collided with a chair, twisted, fell, and landed, thump, the breath knocked from her, Ryan’s clothes and books flying from her grasp.

That’s it, she thought. I have to calm down. This isn’t helping. I must get back on track.

She would go to her bedroom and try to relax with a book. She opened the bedroom door.

There was the tunnel.

Dark, cramped, looking like rough-hewn obsidian, the tunnel beckoned. As she groped forward, wondering where her bedroom had gone, Jessie found the tunnel was mud, black and cool and sticky.

The tunnel curved up to a low roof. Smoking torches were planted at irregular intervals. They gave off a stink of sulfur and an orange light.

Is this Hell? she wondered.

It felt surprisingly cool. She had thought Hell would be leaping with fires, but the air nuzzled pearly-soft against her skin. She could not see the tunnel’s beginning or end.

The sticky roof almost scraped her head as she edged forward. Bits of mud detached, falling with soft squelches.

The fallen mud was moving, animating, taking shape, growing arms and legs and wings.

Demons, she told herself, and thought of the young woman in the park. Her courage failed her, and she turned, searching for the bedroom door.

Nothing but black tunnel. Nowhere to go but forward.

The large demons were like dogs sniffing at her heels. Others, tiny as butterflies, attached themselves to her eyelashes and hung chittering. They spoke in heated little voices.

“How do I get out?” Jessie wondered.

“You are ugly,” said one like a fairy, with Monarch butterfly stained-glass wings.

“Where is the exit?”

“No one likes you,” said a big one snapping at her heels.

“Who asked you?” Jessie snapped back.

“You did not pay enough attention to Mother,” she heard. “You are filled with poison,” another growled.

She winced. “No. It’s not true…” But she saw Lynne edging away, Ryan packing his bags, Mother sighing.

Some of the small flying demons wore her mother’s face. Others, Ryan’s mouth or Lynne’s eyes. Some had no faces at all, but every one of them had teeth.

The Monarch-butterfly demon, and a grim lumbering one covered with warts, and one long and glittering like a dragonfly, spoke louder than the others. Each demon, as it told her a thing, bit off a piece of her clothing. You are selfish, said Monarch. Stupid, shrilled Needle, the dragonfly. Unlovable, grunted wart-covered Grim.

They attacked, voracious for the sustenance of her clothing, shredding it from her body. The air that had been so pearly-warm turned cold as iron. She ran, she struggled, she dodged, but demons flew at her like strafing jets. They snatched scrap after scrap of clothing. They kept at it, for hours, until she was down to shrinking, shivering skin.

They will leave me alone now, she thought.

But one demon, the dragonfly-like Needle, landed on her shoulder. It sank its minute teeth into her.

“Ow!” She swatted it away, and felt another hot sting when a piece of her skin came off in the demon’s teeth.

Other demons continued pulling skin away. She batted at them, rolled against the tunnel walls, ran, dodged. To no avail. Bites from Monarch and Needle were tiny. The big demons like Grim ripped away enormous patches.

But she stumbled on, further into the tunnel, trying to leave the demons behind.

She traveled for days in the company of demons. Weeks. Months. Years. Their words dripped in her ears.

You were not sad enough when your mother was in the hospital, said Needle; You’ll never find your way out, said Grim.

She walked until she was one open wound, and all she could smell was the copper tang of her own blood. She retained one secret, hidden piece of skin, and clung to the thought that she still had something.

One day she saw a shape up ahead, huddled against the wall of the tunnel. At first she thought it was one of the big demons. But as she drew closer she saw it was human.

She had almost forgotten how humans looked. And this one seemed familiar. She searched her memory: Lavender scent. Reddish hair. Hands that slapped.

She stopped, Monarch and Needle flying around her head, Grim nudging up against her knees. As she leaned closer she could see the woman had grown very old, so ancient that she too was laid bare, like an anatomy chart.

“You have some skin left,” said the stranger.

Jessie remembered the skin on the bottom of her right foot.

“I want it. You owe it to me.”

Almost by reflex Jessie reached down and detached the last of her skin, holding it like a leaf. The stranger snatched it and pressed it to the middle of her forehead. The skin grew, covering her head to toe. “Is that all you have?”

Jessie nodded.

“You’ve always disappointed me.” she said.

It had a familiar ring. The demons were in her. When she died they went free. First into the knife and the letter holder.

“Go away,” she whispered. “Leave me alone!”

Mother shrugged. “If that’s what you want.” She turned, and was soon lost around the slight curve of the tunnel.

That, too, was familiar. Mother, leaving Jessie to care for her collected junk, junk that bit and scratched, leaving Jessie to look after the demons, in their company forever.

A hot coal of rage grew in her throat.

“I hate you! I’m glad you’re dead! I hope it hurt!” Jessie screamed herself hoarse. Then she screamed grief and sorrow. She screamed until her voice gave up.

But Mother was really gone now.

She walked, driven by a need to escape. There had been a door. Doors were hard rectangles with round knobs that made them open. She limped on.

The demons seemed to want to help now; big reptilian Grim nudged her forward, and little Monarch and Needle led the way.

As she traveled, the mud lining the walls detached itself in bits, and where she brushed up against it, clung to her, forming a new skin, cooling the fire of her raw flesh.

She walked for a few years this way, equalized, neither hot nor cold.

She began to laugh one day, soundless. What was it people possessed, that she kept bumping up blindly against them, asking, begging? She wondered if it had been similar to pieces of skin.

She must be very old. Maybe as old as the mother. She wished that she had a voice, even to exchange inanities with Monarch or Grim: Isn’t the mud so much blacker today?

It was many years later when she saw the patch of light at the end of the tunnel.

The demons began to fall back, Grim and the other big ones curling into the darkness of the tunnel floor, the little ones, Monarch and Needle, hovering in front of her face, finally settling into the walls.

The patch of light grew brighter. She put out a hand to touch it and almost fell over. Stumbled, caught herself, and looked around, not recognizing her own home.

Black and swampy, she sat on the floor, blinking against the brightness. Then she scraped off the mud, leaving it in a heap amid empty trash bags and overflowing boxes.

She was astounded to see that fresh new skin had grown underneath. She was astounded to see that it was still October.

She felt tough and cool and elastic in her whole being.

She remembered the message on the answering machine: Ryan would be coming by later to retrieve his things. She got up to tidy the room.

And stopped.

What was the use of seeing Ryan now? She had no name. She had no voice.

She pushed the black mud into a plastic bag and closed it tight to keep it malleable. Clay came from mud. Her hands remembered what to do with clay. She put it in her car. Drove toward Taos, New Mexico. She had always wanted to be a sculptor.

Snow in the City

by Bryan Stroud

The snow began just before sundown. The man sat at the window and watched as the first flakes began to fall. They drifted down in random, wind-blown patterns and settled on the brick ledge just outside the window. He had been expecting this. He had looked forward to it all day while he worked alone in the small apartment. He had looked out the window that morning and he had seen the clouds building in the west. He knew what those clouds meant at this time of year and he had anticipated it all day. He looked at the street below to see if the snow was sticking but he knew that it did not matter. With those clouds there would be much snow. It was always the same no matter where you were. But he was in the city now and he didn’t know what to do.

If he had been back home he knew what he would do. He would wait until a couple of inches had fallen and the ground was completely covered. Then he would put on his boots and heavy coat and he would walk through the fields. He would feel the soft snow underneath his feet cushioning and silencing his step. He would blow his breath out in steamy blasts and feel the snowflakes pelting his face when the wind blew as he walked past the old garden and the rotting, collapsing barns. He would walk past the pond which would absorb the snowflakes without a ripple, the pond which never seemed to freeze when it should have but when it did it froze hard, and you could look down through the ice and see frogs and turtles moving slowly underneath. He would walk past the grove of pecan trees which would be bare and empty, their gnarled, twisted limbs reaching toward the gray sky. That was when you knew the fall was over, when you saw those trees there. The pecans that were on the ground and hadn’t been picked up would go rotten underneath the snow. There would be no more pecan picking that year and you knew that a season of your life had passed.

He would then move on into winter. He would be walking on the well-worn trail and the slope of the land would rise gradually for a long way until the very end, when it went up sharply just in front of the barbed wire fence. Then you were at the top and you could look back and down over everything; the pecan trees, and the pond, and past the trees would be the house with smoke in the chimney. And on the left of the rolling fields would be a forest of skeletal trees.

After that he would walk across the stream bed which only ran when it rained. On both sides of the stream bed would be trees which thrived on the water it brought and in between the trees were thornbushes and thick vines which grew together to form an inpenentrable wall and inside of that was where the deer stayed. Sometimes, if you were lucky, you might see one on the outside, bounding spring-legged, to disappear over a fence or behind a clump of trees. But most of the time you were not lucky and here he would always begin to get cold. Then he would walk through the pine trees for the smell, and then turn for home. And when you got home you were glad, because it was when you were in front of the fire that you realized how cold you had been, and the cup of coffee was life in your hands.

On the floor above the woman was pacing, pacing, across her apartment. She went along a path through her living room and into the kitchen where she stopped in front of the sink. Then she turned around and walked hurriedly back with a restlessness that came over her often these days. She was a woman in her late forties who had once been a great beauty, and she was still considered so by some. She had a soft round face surrounded by light brown hair. Her body, clothed in jeans and a black sweater, also had this quality of softness. At last she grew tired of pacing and went downstairs.

She entered the man’s apartment quietly, without knocking, and he did not turn away from the window. He knew who it was and, somehow, he had been expecting her, the same way he had been expecting the snow. She moved over to the window and sat down next to him. They watched the snow falling in the street. Now it was dark and the streetlights cast an eerie glow over everything and the snowflakes moved through shafts of light into darkness.

“You look sad,” she said at last. She looked at his large blue eyes. It was the eyes that had first drawn her to him. The rest of him was young but the eyes were very old in repose.

“No. Not sad,” he responded. “Just watching. Just watching the snow fall.”

“It looks beautiful,” she said absently. “Did you work well?”

“Well enough,” he said. “Did you?”

“No,” she said. “Not at all.” The man said nothing. He was suddenly irritated. He was young and took the fact that he could write whenever he wanted for granted. He had not written long enough to come to the day when he would be unable to write. The day when he would look at the paper and no words would come.

“Let’s go for a walk,” he said quickly, standing up. Somehow, the woman had ruined it for him and now he felt restless.

She went upstairs for her coat and then they went down and out into the street. The man noticed how much quieter everything was now. Everything was muffled and muted and even the cars going by were quiet.

“What is it about snow that is so quiet?” he asked aloud. “It’s not even the fact that it softens everything, there’s something else.”

“I’ve always thought that it’s because the snow itself is so quiet. You look and you see it all falling and piling up and doing all the things a snowstorm does, and yet the snow itself is absolutely silent. It’s all this activity with no noise.”

“I guess that’s it,” the man said thoughtfully. Suddenly, he was very pleased to be around this woman, who knew much more about things than he did.

They walked slowly for several blocks until the man noticed that they were coming up on Guido’s. This was a restaurant the man had discovered when he first came to the city. It was small and friendly and they always gave you a lot to eat for not very much money. He liked that and he liked Guido and his family, who all called him “Signor Heel” and treated him with more respect than he felt he deserved. Guido and his wife treated him almost paternally, giving him extra to eat and always asking how he was. This had meant a lot to him when he had first arrived in the city and it meant a lot to him now.

But now he knew that it was too late. Guido’s was always closed by now, especially with the snow. There would not be any customers with the snow. But when they came to the restaurant Guido and his son were standing in the doorway.

“Ahh, Signor Heel. So nice to see you and the Signora. Tell me, what do you think of this snow?”

“I like it quite a bit,” Hill said. “Very peaceful.” He was very pleased suddenly, to be talking to Guido.

“You must like it quite a bit to be out in it like this. Me, I do not like it. I come from southern Italy and there it does not snow. I never see snow ever before I came here. I’ve been here now for twenty years and I seen much of it and still I do not like it.”

“Really?”

“I tell you truly. I get used to it but I will never like it. I lived in warm weather too long and I was too old when I came here to like it.”

“What about you?” Hill asked the boy. “Do you like it?” The boy was seventeen, dark-haired and thin. He was very shy and he had a habit of looking down when spoken to.

“I like it,” he said simply. “It is very peaceful.” Guido smiled at him broadly.

“You see?” he said. “He was born here, so he like the snow. But we have been standing in it for too long. Even Antonio here does not like it that much. Now you must come in and have something to eat and something to drink.”

“But you are closed,” Hill said.

“Not for you. For you we are open.”

“We don’t want to trouble you,” the woman said.

“It is no trouble,” Guido said. “We are not so closed that we cannot make you something. There is still a fire in the oven, so to speak.”

“Are you sure?”

“Sure I’m sure. Besides, I make money out of it, yes?” There is no arguing with money. Inside the restaurant it was warm and darkly lit. Everything was quiet and clean.

“Sit wherever you like,” the boy said, “and I will bring the menus.”

“And I will go in the back and do my business,” Guido added. Then they were gone and Hill and the woman sat down at a table.

“They are very nice to us here, aren’t they?” the woman said.

“Yes.”

“I guess it’s you, isn’t it? Everyone wants to take care of you.”

“Yes,” Hill conceded. “I suppose you are right.”

“I know I’m right.” Antonio returned with a bottle of wine and glasses and the menus. He took the orders in his practiced, professional way. Then they could hear him talking to Guido in the kitchen and there was the noise of Guido preparing the food.

“So what were you thinking about?” she asked. “When I came in.”

“I was thinking about the snow back home.”

“Why don’t you go home?”

“I live here now.”

“No, you don’t,” she said. “You stay here but your mind is there.”

“No,” he said slowly with a resoluteness he did not feel. “Not all the time. Just on certain days. My work is here, and my life is here, and you are here.”

“You can work anywhere, and I don’t think I’m enough to keep you here. You can’t live in both places at the same time, you know.”

“No, you can’t.” Then they said nothing for what seemed a very long time before the food was brought in.

“Here, you see,” Guido said grandly. “Here it is. I told I would fix you up. I take care of you here.” He stood up straight and looked on proudly.

“Won’t you join us?” Hill asked. “Sit with us and have some wine. There is more here than we can drink.”

“Ah, no, we can’t. We are very busy.”

“No you’re not,” Hill said with a smile. “You were standing outside when we got here. Sit with us, please.”

“Ok, ok,” Guido conceded. “If you insist.” He turned to the boy and said, “Go get two more glasses, would you please?” The boy turned without expression and walked into the kitchen, where he broke into a large grin.

“Two glasses,” he said to himself. “He wants two glasses.” Carefully, he carried the glasses back to the table.

“Ah, very good,” Guido said. Without ceremony, he took one of the glasses and filled it with wine. Then he filled the second one and handed it to the boy.

“So Signor Heel, where are you from that you like the snow so much?” Guido asked.

“Oklahoma.”

“Ah, yes, Oklahoma. For many years, I have studied and read many books about America so that I may know it, and know where everything is. Someday, when I am no longer running this restaurant, I would like to go and see these places that everyone talks about. But for now, I only read about them. Oklahoma, it is the one above Texas, right?”

“That’s right.”

“Ah yes, the one that looks like a gun. Never have I been there. Chicago is as close as I have gotten.”

“That’s not very close.”

“No,” Guido said, shaking his head. “It is not very close. But tell me, is it not too far south for snow?”

“Well, we get cold air that comes down from Canada.”

“I see. Down the Great Plains.”

“That’s right.”

“But doesn’t it also get very hot there?”

“Very hot. It is a place of great extremes.”

“Yes, I see,” Guido said, nodding his head. “A very strange place. Here it gets very hot also.”

“Yes.”

“Where I come from it is not like that. Because of the sea.” He sat there looking very solemn behind his heavy black moustache. “It is a very beautiful place with very nice weather.” It occurred to Hill then that we are all from somewhere. Soon the dinner was over.

“Come back sooner next time,” Guido said as they walked to the door. “You stay away too long. I enjoy talking to both of you. Come eat here more often.”

“We will. Good night.”

“Good night.”

Then the door was closed and they were on the sidewalk. The snow continued to fall but now it fell in heavy, straight lines. They were large snowflakes making their way down steadily to join the growing mass that now covered all the places where the traffic did not pass. They walked in the snow and the slush and now it was very cold.

“So now you have to go,” she said quietly.

“Yes. At least for a while.” Suddenly, he realized it fully and he was very angry with himself. For years he had dreamed of coming to this city to do exactly what he was doing now. He had wanted to live the life he was now living. He had wanted with frenzied determination to leave, and he had worked for a long time to make it happen. And now that he was here and living his dream, it all seemed somehow hollow and unfulfilling, and he wanted to go home. He felt a sense of failure. He felt that it was somehow his fault, that some weakness within him was keeping him from enjoying what he had earned.

“But I’ll come back,” he said aloud.

“Yes,” she replied. “You will someday. But not to me. I won’t be here.”

“I know. I didn’t expect you to be.” They walked on in silence and soon their building loomed in the near distance.

“I guess I expected it,” she continued. “One way or another, I knew this day would come.”

“Yes,” Hill said. “So did I.” They went up the elevator and stopped at his floor.

“Won’t you come in for a while?” he asked.

“No,” she said quietly. She stepped out of the elevator and stood before him. “And you don’t have to try and explain it. I understand it all perfectly. You know, I’m just a lonely middle-aged writer who can’t write anymore. And when I first met you, you were so energetic, full of ideas, full of life. You reminded me of me twenty years ago. And I wanted it back. I wanted what you had. I wanted it to rub off on me. I never meant to fall in love with you. But I did, and it’s my own fault. I hope you don’t feel too bad about it.” The elevator doors slid open and she stepped inside.

“I always knew this day would come,” she said. “I’ve been denying it for a long time now, but I knew it would come. You have to go. I can see now that you have to go.”