Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Winter Night -short fiction-

By the time the snow rolled in it was already fully dark. When I had come into the bar the sun was still fitfully struggling against the quick descent of night but as always it gave up and ran away for another day and the winter night gripped the city. At first the snow was just a faint hint in the air, a heaviness to the clouds in the sky that only bespoke the possibility. But then it happened, and from the bar I could look outside and see the flakes falling so hard and fast it was hard to make out the building across the street.

"Aw, damn," the bartender said as he leaned against the bar and looked out the window with me. "I was hoping it'd swing south and miss us." He gestured towards my drink, only half a finger of scotch left in the glass. "You want another?"

"Probably shouldn't," I said. "It looks like it might get kind of nasty out there. I'll finish up and see if I can't get home before the worst of it hits."

"Smart man. By the time I get out of here, it's going to be hell. Doubt the plows will go by this way by then." He wiped down the bar and looked around at the other customers to see if he was needed by any of them. The bar was muted and slow with the weather pressing down so heavily.

I watched him tend to cleaning up as best he could and lifted the scotch glass. In the dim light, the amber liquid glistened. I moved the glass in a circular motion and watched its contents coat the inside of the glass. Then I lifted it to my mouth and downed what was left in a single swallow. It was mellow and slightly sweet in my mouth but warmed my throat all the way down to my stomach.

As I set my glass down the side door to the bar opened. Patrons all seemed to become smaller as the cold wind blew in and the temperature suddenly dropped. The figure who had opened the door came in, stomping their feet on the mat in front of the door. Snow dropped off of them and the temperature was finally climbing back to normal when they took off their coat. It was an old man, someone I didn't recognize. He was eyeing a spot at the bar.

I stood up and peeled my coat off the back of my barstool. "You can have this spot, sir," I said. "I'm headed out."

"Oh, thank you very much," the man said. "You have no idea how chilly it is out there. Feels like the temperature up and jumped off a cliff once the snow started. You be careful. Night like this it helps to stay inside."

"Thanks for the heads up," I said as I put my money down on the bar for the bartender. He was over filling up a pint, but waved at me as I headed for the door. I tried to slip out quickly to keep the hot air in, but I could feel everyone behind me retreat into themselves to stay warm as I stepped out into the cold.

Outside the world was quiet. The jazz music that had been playing inside was gone. Instead there was only the muted silence of a winter night in a heavy snowfall. You could hear it, the deafening silence when the world curled up. I pulled my coat tighter around myself and looked down the street. There was already nearly a good inch of snow fall on the ground, with the promise of more coming. I slowly made my way back to my car, the only moving thing on the street with my breath trailing in big puffs behind me.

By the time I got to the car I was covered in a thin dusting of snow. But that was nothing compared to the car. I shook off the snow as best I could before I got in and started the car, turning the heater and defroster on high. Then I grabbed the brush from the back seat of my car. Brushing the snow off the car was easy, it was light and powdery. But an untimely gust of wind meant that by the time I was done I was covered in snow and shake as I might, I was cold and wet by the time I got the car. It didn't help that it was still cold inside. The heater was trying, but it was unfair to ask the poor thing to fight off an entire season.

I breathed into my hands and cursed my lack of gloves. I hadn't expected this much snowfall tonight. I turned on the wipers to keep the windshield clean and waited for the car to start to heat up before I buckled my seat belt and put the car in gear and pulled off of the side street where I was parked.

The streets were nearly deserted everywhere. Cars were quickly becoming buried with snow and the few who were out and about were carefully hurrying home to get out from under it all. In the snow, the streetlights reflected off of the snowfall and the entire world was cast in a brighter, orange hue that it normally would be at night. At least I didn't have to worry about visibility.

With only the roar of the heater and the soft crunch of snow under my tires, I started the slow drive home. This time of night, most of the streetlights were flashing yellow and I rarely had to stop. Instead, the long stretches of road became a trek through a world that seemed transformed. Houses loomed dark far from the street. Drifts of snow curled around trees and danced in front of my headlights. From time to time, I spotted a plow a few blocks away, but I was taking out of the way streets.

I emerged from the residential area I was driving in to a major intersection. Here the street was a bit busier, with a plow trundling past at a snail's pace. Ahead I saw the road I would take to head home, a barely visible line that hadn't been touched by a plow yet. It led on and on, into the darkness, the street lights on either side lighting my way.

I idled for a moment, by now warm and damp but comfortable in my car. I looked ahead at the road I would need to travel, slippery and empty but leading towards home where the heat would have kicked on automatically and it would be warm and I could get a hot shower and maybe a cup of tea. I could be as comfortable as I wanted, waiting out the snow like everybody else.

I turned on my blinker, announcing to nobody that I was turning left. I turned onto the plowed road, seeing nobody aside from that single plow. I followed back behind it for a ways, avoiding the spray of salt and sand but happy to be driving in its wake. It was major roads all the way to my destination, many of them already plowed. Some were once again begin overtaken by drifting snow, others were kind of slushy from the salt and were treacherous. I kept it slow and they were no problem, though the snow kept coming down as if challenging me to stick around and see what it could do.

I was finally at my destination, the bright fluorescent glare of an open establishment on an otherwise dark and desolate street. There were a few cars parked outside, people as foolish as I was on a night like this. I slid into one of the parking spaces and shut my car off. The moment I opened the door, the wind blew against me and I felt the cold seeping into my body again. It was the kind of cold that made your bones ache. I pulled my coat tight against me and walked up to the entrance.

The sign on the door said YES, WE'RE OPEN. Inside were a few people sitting at tables and at the counters, all drinking from steaming cups of coffee. The cook was inside frying eggs and hash browns and sausages right on the other side of the counter. He was in the middle of some discussion with one of the patrons, his spatula being used as much for gesticulation as it was a cooking utensil.

Outside the door were a few people, one or two I recognized as possibly being regulars. The waitress was also outside. They were all huddled close to the entryway. I stopped at the group and said good night to them all. The waitress knew me, offered me a cigarette. I thought for a moment and looked in at the inside of the diner. In there was warmth and light and good smells and even better food. But it would still be there after a smoke.

I took the offered cigarette and lighter, setting the cigarette against my cold lips and flicking the lighter. The flame was bright in the darkness of this huddle and warm against my face for the brief moment it took to light the cigarette. I inhaled, warm smoke pulled into my body that heated my core even as I felt the wind take the heat from my hands. I would be frozen by the time I was done smoking. The rest of them looked well on their way there, too.

The waitress looked at me as I pulled my coat tighter around myself and tried to shield my one exposed hand from the wind as best I could. She was obviously amused. "Nice night we're having, huh?"

"The best," I said. I wasn't sure whether that was sarcasm or not.

"Shoulda stayed home," one of the other people, a short woman I didn't recognize, said. "Not a night to be out."

"What else am I going to do on a night like this, go home?" I answered her. I took another deep drag on the cigarette. Everyone around me laughed in understanding. The heavy snowfall and the brisk wind made the laughter silent to all but us.

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